Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Aug. 28 crossword, “Secret Agents”


Cue up the “Mission: Impossible” music — we’ve got a secret crossword on our hands!

Today’s crossword has a metapuzzle that comes in two parts: One is the main 21×21 crossword, and the second is a mysterious, secret dossier you have to unlock online. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to complete the crossword, infiltrate The Washington Post’s website, find the dossier, and uncover the two-word phrase that serves as the puzzle’s final meta answer.

This post will discuss both “Secret Agents” and “The Dossier” gradually, first by giving some hints about how to solve the meta before revealing the full solutions. If you have not solved the meta and do not want spoilers, stop reading now and return at a later time. Otherwise, proceed. Let’s complete this mission together.

The instructions give you the information about the mission:

You are a special agent looking for a secret dossier. After finishing this puzzle, go to and click on a link to the dossier where you must enter a four-digit code. The dossier will give you clues about how to find the two-word phrase that is this puzzle’s meta answer.

Step one is to solve the puzzle and find the right four-digit code. You can’t enter just any four-digit code — you need a specific code to access the dossier.

The puzzle itself looks like a standard crossword at first glance, although there are quite a few black squares (96, which is very high for a typical 21×21 grid) and also more answers than normal (most of my puzzles have 144 answers, but this one has 156). The first sign that something is amiss is that several Down answers seem to be one letter short. 12D: [Soaks (up)] seems to be SOP, but it should really be SOPS. 15D: [Cain’s victim] is another three-letter answer, but it should definitely be ABEL and not ABE as it appears in the grid. 116D: [Toon Betty’s surname] is a fairly basic clue for BOOP, but the answer is apparently OOP. What’s going on?

It turns out that there are some secret letters concealed in black squares throughout the grid. The words in those black squares reveal names that might be familiar to you. They are the names of famous fictional secret agents. Actually, this means there are 160 total answers in the grid if you count these unclued hidden answers.

  • SMILEY from John Le Carre’s novels is hidden in six black squares in the northeast. The crossing Down answers above those black squares are SOP(S), THE(M), RAN(I), ABE(L), FIR(E), and ETS(Y). The Down answers below those black squares are (S)PARE, (M)ALIGN, (I)RISES, (L)ACK, (E)DIE, and (Y)EAR.
  • BOND from Ian Fleming’s novels (and plenty of movies) is hiding in four black squares a bit northwest of the center. The crossing Down answers above BOND are COM(B), OR S(O), NEO(N), and SOL(D). The crossing Down answers below BOND are (B)ILK, (O)PAL, (N)ONE, and (D)RAT. I thought it was funny how the clue for (N)ONE at 57D was [Zero], which would definitely be an incorrect clue for the apparent answer ONE.
  • PEEL from “The Avengers” is hiding in four black squares a bit southeast of the center. The crossing Down answers above PEEL are CHO(P), HAT(E), ANT(E), and IDO(L). The crossing Down answers below PEEL are (P)ADS, (E)MIT, (E)DNA, and (L)ASS.
  • BOURNE from Robert Ludlum’s novels is hiding in six black squares in the southwest. The crossing Down answers above BOURNE are AHA(B), REN(O), RAG(U), DRIVE(R), CAVER(N), and DENS(E). The crossing Down answers below BOURNE are (B)OOP, (O)RCA, (U)DON, (R)AND, (N)INA, and (E)NOS.

The trick Down answers are legitimate crossword entries with and without the black square letters, which is what I always strive for in hidden letter themes. In fact, this theme, as-is, could stand on its own without an additional meta. But if you want to find the secret meta answer, what do we do with these literally secret agents?

A big clue is at the final Across answer at 133A: [Secret agent … and a word whose letters, when applied to this puzzle’s secret agents, hint at a four-digit code] which is MOLE. This might lead to a few good ideas which are unintentional traps. One idea might be to count up the number of instances of M/O/L/E in the secret agents’ names, so with one M, two O’s, two L’s, and four E’s, that would lead you to the code 1224 … which is incorrect.

The correct idea is similar. What you need to do is spot MOLE spelled out one letter at a time in the four names:

  • SMILEY — the second letter is an M.
  • BOND — the second letter is an O.
  • PEEL — the fourth letter is an L.
  • BOURNE — the sixth letter is an E.

Now take those numbered positions of the MOLE letters in the secret agents’ names and you get the four-digit code 2246. That’s the code to the dossier. So, then click on the link provided on the Sunday puzzle webpage (the dossier link is available in the puzzle’s start message and also accessible from the “Info” button in the navigation bar on desktop and in the clue list view on mobile) and enter 2246 in the box.

The Dossier is a smaller 11×11 puzzle. It looks a bit like one of those old-school computer disks that an agent might use to download classified information … or at least I think it does. Anyway, the instructions tell you to look for clues to find the final meta answer in the main 21×21 puzzle. You’re also told you will not need the four-digit code after unlocking the dossier, so you can discard 2246 for the rest of the meta.

There are two obvious theme clues in the Dossier:

  • 12A: [Code ___ (things often assumed by secret agents … although some use their real ones)] is NAMES.
  • 40A: [Code ___ (terms that form a secret message … like four answers in the larger puzzle that correspond with four clues found in this dossier)] is WORDS.

There are 160 answers in the bigger puzzle, so how do we determine which ones are relevant to the Dossier? Well, there’s the hidden SMILEY, BOND, PEEL, and BOURNE, and the clue for LOL at 35D in the Dossier is [Potential reaction to an SNL clip on YouTube] which might remind you of a SMILEY emoji. But there aren’t many clues in the Dossier that could apply directly to BOND or PEEL or BOURNE.

This is where the clue for NAMES comes in. Some secret agents use code names like 007, but others (famously) use their real names. The secret agents’ first names can be found in the Dossier as well:

  • 13A: [Character in classic horror films] is JASON, the first name of Jason BOURNE.
  • 25A: [Golden Globe Award-winning actress Stone] is EMMA, the first name of Emma PEEL.
  • 26A: [One of the Beatles] is GEORGE, the first name of George SMILEY.
  • 31A: [NBA star who was selected first overall in the NBA draft] is JAMES, the first name of James BOND.

Now you have to go back into the 21×21 puzzle. The clue for WORDS said you need to find four answers in the main puzzle that match up with four clues in the Dossier. Could the clues for JASON, EMMA, GEORGE, and JAMES correspond with answers in the bigger grid? Yes!:

  • [Character in classic horror films] → IGOR at 18A in the larger puzzle.
  • [Golden Globe Award-winning actress Stone] → SHARON at 34A in the larger puzzle.
  • [One of the Beatles] → PAUL at 67D in the larger puzzle.
  • [NBA star who was selected first overall in the NBA draft] → YAO at 124D in the larger puzzle.

The last thing to do is take the first letters of those four associated answers in order …

… and you get the two-word phrase I SPY. That is the final meta answer.

Congratulations on making it this far, agents, whether you completed the mission on your own or worked with a partner. If you like other spy-related puzzles, please consider checking out the free weekly Spyscape crosswords edited by Will Nediger. I particularly liked solving the Aug. 6 puzzle “Exit Strategy” by Bryant White.

Mission complete. We will return with something a bit more normal next week. In addition to the puzzle, I’m planning to interview a friend of mine from the crossword world in this space. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to Amuse Labs, Emily Chow Mitnick, and Ali Mokhtar for their work adapting the Dossier for online solving, and to an extra-large group of test-solvers on the puzzle itself (in alphabetical order: Patrick Blindauer, Josh Forsythe, Amy Goldstein, Martin Herbach, Ken Levin, Joe Sampson, Steve Thurman, Danny Williams, and James Witherite).

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