Assignment Baghdad

[Image: Screen-grab from a YouTube compilation of Desert Storm missile strikes].

In the summer of 2016, I heard an incredible story from a retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. It combined architectural history, international espionage, an alleged graduate research seminar in Washington D.C., and the first Gulf War. I was hooked.

According to this story, a graduate class at a school somewhere in D.C. had set out to collect as much architectural information as it could about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This meant, at one point, even flying to Europe on a group field trip to visit engineering firms that had done work for Saddam Hussein.

Given the atmosphere at the time, the students most likely thought that their class was an act of protest, a kind of anti-war gesture, meant to help record, document, and even preserve Iraqi architecture before it was destroyed by the U.S. invasion.

Ironically, though, unbeknownst to those students—possibly even to their professor—the seminar’s research was being used to help target U.S. smart bombs. Or, as I phrase this in a new article for The Daily Beast, “there was a reason U.S. forces could put a missile through a window in Baghdad: they knew exactly where the window was. Architecture students in Washington D.C. had unwittingly helped them target it.”

[Image: YouTube].

But then things got complicated.

When I called my source back a few weeks later to follow up, it felt like a scene from a spy film: he said he didn’t remember telling me this (!) before joking that he was getting old and maybe saying things he shouldn’t have. This obviously only made me more determined to find out more.

I called every major school in Washington D.C. I FOIA’d the CIA. I started down a series of rabbit holes that led me from true stories of Gulf War espionage, involving U.S. attempts to collect blueprints for Saddam’s bunkers from engineering firms all over Europe, to a conversation with the head of targeting for the entire U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm.

Along the way, I also kept finding more and more examples of architects and espionage, from Baron Robert Baden-Powell’s incredible use of butterfly sketches to hide floor plans of enemy forts to a 16th-century Italian garden designer who was, most likely, a spy.

[Image: Robert Baden-Powell’s clever use of entomological sketches to hide enemy floorplans, from his essay “My Adventures as a Spy.” See also Mark David Kaufman’s interesting essay about Baden-Powell for the Public Domain Review].

Even Michelangelo gets involved, as his designs for urban fortifications outside Florence, Italy, were secretly modeled in cork and snuck out of the city by an architect named Niccolò di Raffaello dei Pericoli—or Tribolo—in order to help plan a more effective siege (an anecdote I have written about here before).

In any case, I was sitting on this story for the past two years, waiting for my FOIA request to come back from the CIA and trying to set up interviews with people who might have known, first-hand, what I was asking about. The resulting article, my attempt to track down whether such a class took place, is finally up over at The Daily Beast. If any of the above sounds interesting, please click through to check it out.

Finally, of course, if this rings any bells with you—if you took a class like this and, in retrospect, now have doubts about its real purpose—please be in touch.

One thought on “Assignment Baghdad”

  1. I remember trying to buy a map of Baghdad during the first Gulf War. There were only one or two in print and, with the war, they were in short supply. Sure, the US had all kinds of satellites and could do overflights, but it’s hard work turning overhead photos into useful information. Meanwhile, the news media was also hard at work trying to get golly gee whiz graphics for their war coverage. Peter Jennings at ABC was a big map and satellite image fan, and he got the network to spring for a number of visualizations. At the time, everyone was looking for information on modern Baghdad.

    It’s hard to say if that seminar was part of the widespread interest in the imminent war or was set up by some intelligence service. I’m guessing the intelligence people would have contacts in Middle Eastern studies departments rather than architecture departments. Whether that study was fortuitous or finagled, odds are someone in intelligence would have been curious to see its notes.

    If you look at the build up to World War II, British intelligence collected as much information as possible about European industrial infrastructure. There are lots of sources for this, e.g. ‘A Man Called Intrepid’. The idea was to find critical components of industrial production that could be sabotaged or destroyed when war broke out. I remember one critical chemical process was identified in France as especially vulnerable. It relied on special ceramic reaction vessels, vessels that would be difficult to replace in war time.

    Smart bombs made this more important. During World War II, they just dropped bombs as close to the identified area as they could get away with, ideally without getting shot down. Most of the bombs missed their targets and blew up something else instead. If you had identified the wrong building, odds are no one would know. (Interestingly, the Germans had announced a program of bombing in England based on the Baedecker guidebook, but there bombs were no more accurate than those of the allies.)

    Smart bombs meant you could target an individual building or component and likely hit it. If the target wasn’t what you thought it was, you had collateral damage without even the benefit of blowing up lots of stuff. This could cause problems. Look at the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Balkan war. The bomb landed just where it was told to, but it was the wrong target.

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