Assignment Baghdad: Did a Group of Grad Students Really Help Plan the Gulf War?

When grad students were asked to collect floor plans for buildings in Baghdad in the fall of 1990, were they helping to preserve Iraqi culture—or to find targets for smart bombs?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

In the fall of 1990, an unusual grad-school seminar kicked off at a university in Washington D.C. Its students were asked to collect as much information as they could about buildings throughout Iraq, from palaces to warehouses, museums to bunkers. The students had likely been told that their work was an attempt to document, even to help preserve, works of architecture that might soon be lost to history in the impending war. U.S. forces were gathering in the Persian Gulf and the invasion of Iraq was imminent.

What these students did not know, however, was that their course was part of an experimental U.S. intelligence-gathering operation that sought to collect sensitive architectural documents—blueprints, diagrams, photographs—about potential targets in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Far from saving these buildings, the students’ research was used to help more effectively destroy them.

When Operation Desert Storm began just a few months later in January 1991, 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.

This is the story I was told by a retired Defense Intelligence Agency analyst in the summer of 2016. The man, who was speaking to me off the record and thus remains anonymous, went on to explain that, prior to the start of combat operations, the United States intelligence community launched an effort to obtain blueprints for “every single building in Iraq.” They wanted to know the location and layout of every room and corridor, every window and ledge.

These were not trivial details. Indeed, the analyst suggested, this kind of architectural knowledge was an overlooked but significant reason why U.S. munitions were as accurate as they were in the first place. Laser-guided smart bombs assisted by GPS satellites had been augmented with ground-level architectural intelligence to launch what was, at the time, the most precise missile attack in military history. A group of grad students in Washington D.C. had helped make it possible.

My contact went into detail about how the course was likely structured, suggesting that it could have been underwritten by what he called “an assistance-to-diplomacy budget.” The intelligence community at the time, he pointed out, was on the verge of being restructured. The world was in flux. The Berlin Wall had fallen less than one year earlier. The Soviet Union was on its last legs, with Poland pulling out of the Warsaw Pact and Estonia declaring its independence that spring. History itself, in Francis Fukuyama’s infamous phrasing, was at an end.

The man’s story seemed to offer an entirely new window on the last days of the Cold War. As old superpower rivalries collapsed, the world of spies exchanged across bridges at dawn was being replaced by one in which grad students sitting in a library, studying floor plans, were unknowingly helping to reshape American warfare.

In those years before widespread digitalization, the students’ research would have been almost entirely analogue, relying on physical blueprints and printed construction documents. At one point, my source alleged, the class even embarked on an overseas field trip to visit European engineering firms that had designed industrial facilities for Saddam Hussein. Blueprints would have been copied and archived; papers would have been written and reviewed. In the process, these students would have accumulated a minor but real expertise in 20th-century Iraqi architecture.

“Start with a central question,” the analyst said to me. “How do you destroy a bunker? From that descends a whole series of intelligence questions. For instance, we need to get as many blueprints and architectural drawings as we can of things that were constructed in Iraq, and we know that they [Iraq] didn’t have their own significant construction industry. How do we find that information elsewhere?” One strategy, he suggested, would be to put together a fake architectural conference, with a focus on, say, construction and design in the Middle East, then to sit quietly in the background, taking advantage of the ensuing exchange.

Such a plan might sound over-complicated, but it is apparently not uncommon. Writing for The Guardian in 2017, journalist Daniel Golden reported that “the CIA has secretly spent millions of dollars staging scientific conferences around the world.” The Agency, he claimed, “sends officers to them; it hosts them through front companies in the Washington area, so that the intelligence community can tap academic wisdom; and it mounts sham conferences to reach potential defectors from hostile countries.” If there are sham conferences, of course, then why not sham graduate seminars?

Golden’s claims are supported by a paper published in 1959 by the CIA’s own internal magazine, Studies in Intelligence [PDF]. There, author Anthony F. Czajkowski describes a tactic called “university exploitation.” For the CIA, university exploitation means taking advantage of a professor—perhaps a whole department—whose published work or international travel has engaged, in some way, with a particular adversary. Czajkowski explains how a creative CIA agent should take advantage of trade journals and academic conferences as sources of information, not just reading papers but gathering materials such as floors plans and maps. The agent should also offer a targeted professor anonymity. This is called “source protection,” and it can be as simple as staging meetings so that they cannot be overheard by disapproving colleagues.

As for the professor leading this D.C. architecture course, “nobody probably even looked at his syllabus,” my contact suggested, with the effect that no one would have known exactly what was going on. The course could also have received a grant for reasons that were never fully explained, meaning that students and professor alike might have been in the dark about their research’s larger context—including who was actively tracking it.

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If anything, ironically, cultural circumstances at the time would most likely have given the seminar an air of anti-war activism. The students would likely have believed that their work had an overriding moral goal: that its purpose was to recognize the cultural value of Iraqi buildings, even to shame the U.S. military into not launching an attack in the first place.

One interesting question is if the students ever realized they’d been duped—if they had grown suspicious or picked up hints, or even, once the initial air campaign was shown on CNN, narrated by a youthful Wolf Blitzer, if they would have noticed anything familiar about the targets. Perhaps they had only recently studied diagrams for that very factory or government complex, a structure they now saw being blown up on international TV. Would they have thought it was mere coincidence?

I was riveted by the man’s story and wanted to learn more—it sounded like a cross between Argo and Dead Poet’s Society—however, several immediate obstacles stood in the way. Foremost was a question: was what the man had told me even true?

Architecture and espionage have had a long and fruitful relationship. In his book Oblique Drawing, historian Massimo Scolari recounts a story from the siege of Florence in 1529. There, an architect named Niccolò di Raffaello dei Pericoli—also known as Tribolo—worked with an assistant to assemble a detailed cork model of the city’s fortifications. This was not simply an academic study of the magnificent defenses extensively renovated in the 1520s by no less a figure than Michelangelo. Instead, Tribolo’s model was successfully “smuggled out of the besieged city in various pieces concealed inside bales of wool,” Scolari writes, after which it was used to help plan a more effective military attack. It was covert architectural modeling in the service of siege warfare.

Even landscape architecture can provide effective cover. In 2016, Davide Martino, a student of history at Cambridge University, was researching the career of 16th-century garden designer Costantino de’ Servi when he discovered something odd about de’ Servi’s work: the man hadn’t really designed anything. Instead, de’ Servi always seemed to pop up at key moments of European geopolitical intrigue. According to an article later published by the university, de’ Servi’s “presumed gardening career” was actually “a career of undercover political collusion.” In other words, he was a spy, using his alleged landscape expertise as a cover to send confidential letters back to his Medici family sponsors, keeping them apprised of international affairs.

One of the most inspired examples of architectural espionage, however, comes from the career of Robert Baden-Powell, an English Baron, founder of the Boy Scouts Association, and one-time Lieutenant General in the British Army. Incredibly, Baden-Powell used fake entomological illustrations as a clever means of camouflage: hidden within the veins and markings of his butterfly sketches, he placed the floor plans of enemy fortifications. Baden-Powell himself explained in an essay called “My Adventures as a Spy” that, when his notebook was seized and examined by foreign authorities, “they did not look sufficiently closely into the sketches of butterflies to notice that the delicately drawn veins of the wings were exact representations, in plan, of their own fort, and that the spots on the wings denoted the number and position of guns and their different calibers.”

Military secrets can be hidden in plain sight, in other words—even in a folder of blueprints stuffed in the backpack of a well-meaning American grad student. The presumed innocence of a student hoping to research the inner workings of a building has a value for intelligence services that should not be underestimated. Curiosity about structures—whether they are water-filtration plants, power stations, bridges, or government office buildings—might be suspicious in a military context, but it is nearly essential to an architect’s education. As a result, an architecture student can ask for entry to places where anyone else’s inquiries might cause alarm.

While the CIA no doubt has better resources than an untrained group of grad students, it is nonetheless also true that using students to gain access to buildings or works of infrastructure in foreign countries requires potentially no budget and poses no real risk of discovery. After all, if the students themselves don’t know who’s using their research, how can they be caught? In a sense, why not harness the efforts of U.S. architecture schools in order to learn more about potential targets overseas?

In 2012, while teaching a graduate architecture studio at Columbia University, I was able to bring a visiting group of British architecture students into the ventilation system and underground evacuation routes of New York City’s Holland Tunnel. I had no ulterior motive—nor, I assume, did the students—but, in the light of this story, I realized it was exactly this sort of tour that could be so useful for a foreign intelligence agency hoping to target U.S. infrastructure. Recruit them young; send them to architecture school; profit.

When I got back in touch with the retired analyst from the Defense Intelligence Agency a few weeks later to follow up on his story about the Gulf War architectural seminar, I was taken aback. He suddenly seemed evasive, going so far as to say that he didn’t remember telling me this. He suggested that he must have misspoken—before abruptly changing tack and claiming more or less the opposite, laughing quietly and joking that he was getting old, and, who knows, maybe saying things he wasn’t supposed to. This only made me more curious.

When we got off the phone, I called every major university in Washington D.C. I spoke with baffled registrars and administrative librarians to inquire about course listings from the 1990s. There was no record of such a seminar. I requested every back issue of Jane’s Defence Weekly from 1990-1992, a publication my contact had specifically mentioned in the context of this story, and spent a day holed up in the New York Public Library looking for clues and finding none. I submitted an official Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA, who replied seven months later saying that they could “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records” related to my query. (“The fact of the existence or nonexistence of such records is itself currently and properly classified,” the Agency added—which, of course, I interpreted as proof that I was actually onto something.)

The deeper I dug, reading military histories of the Gulf War alongside international news coverage from the time, the more interesting the man’s tale became. The circumstantial evidence that such a class actually happened is compelling—in part, because the story of how the U.S. tried to track down architectural details of Saddam Hussein’s bunkers already reads like something out of a spy novel.

Take, for example, a construction manager from the now-defunct German firm Boswau & Knauer who had designed a bunker for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. Interviewed by the media during the second Gulf War, the man admitted that he had been approached by the CIA back in 1991 and asked to hand over sensitive construction documents. According to him, he had complied. There were also rumors of Yugoslav firms, including Yugoimport and Energoprojekt, surrendering floor plans to American intelligence. “Washington put heavy pressure on the government in Belgrade to hand over plans to underground complexes,” The Daily Beast's Christopher Dickey reported for Newsweek in 2003. Whether or not the Yugoslav government actually did so, however, could not be verified.

Miastoprojekt, a Polish firm originally hired by the Iraqi government in the 1960s to design a new masterplan for all of Baghdad, also had engineers who, rather than return to Poland from Iraq, instead fled to the United States. Historian Łukasz Stanek, a scholar of Miastoprojekt’s Iraq work based at the University of Manchester, explained to me that he once met an expatriate Polish engineer who had designed the interiors of Saddam’s subterranean bunkers before fleeing to the United States. There, the architect could easily have become a source of valuable human intelligence.

In an official Department of Defense report to Congress released in April 1992, called Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, “human intelligence”—or HUMINT—is specifically cited as a key source of architectural targeting information during the war. “In addition to blueprints and plans,” the report explains, “HUMINT sources provided detailed memory sketches and were able to pinpoint on maps and photographs key locations, which subsequently were targeted.” These tips included “the locations of bunkers underneath key facilities.”

Notably, Poland later became a member of the U.S.-led military coalition behind Operation Desert Storm. Does that mean that U.S. intelligence might have had access to Miastoprojekt’s planning archives? If so, they would have had highly detailed maps, photos, and even diagrams of building interiors at their disposal. There is convincing evidence that they did. In the fall of 1990, for example, the U.S. turned to Poland for help with rescuing six American intelligence agents who were stranded in Iraq. Describing this operation, The Washington Post reported that “Polish agents, mining information from Poland’s substantial construction business in Iraq, also provided the United States with detailed maps of Baghdad and particulars about military installations scattered throughout Iraq.”

Then there were the Swiss. In February 2003, the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung revealed that, in the fall of 1990, Swiss authorities had tried to secure plans from the Zürich-based firm Cepas Plan AG, who had worked extensively in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The firm’s Iraqi footprint included “well over 100 plants of various sizes” and, more importantly, at least one of Saddam’s most fearsome underground bunkers.

The Swiss, it seems, saw handing these blueprints over to U.S. agents as a good-faith effort to assist the American war effort. The article even specifically suggests that architectural details such as these would have been useful for “cruise missile programmers” (“Programmierern der Marschflugkörper”), echoing what my Defense Intelligence Agency contact originally told me about U.S. smart bombs. According to a Cepas Plan engineer, however, the firm never agreed to give up the plans—but somehow the documents were obtained anyway. “I do not know how the papers got into the hands of the Americans,” the engineer said.

By now, I felt like a character in a TV show, pinning news clippings and photos on the wall and connecting it all with colored string. I was finding—or inventing?—connections that seemed to confirm the basics of my source’s story without really proving anything, weaving back and forth across the line between historical research and conspiracy theory. What’s more, a key detail still eluded me: if this seminar really happened, where had it taken place?

One possibility that came up again and again as I discussed this story with colleagues of mine from the architecture world was that perhaps my contact had gotten his school wrong. After all, perhaps the reason no school in Washington D.C. had a record of this class was because the class hadn’t been in Washington D.C. What about Princeton, Harvard, or even Yale, my colleagues speculated, which not only has a prestigious architecture school but is intimately connected to the birth of the CIA?

When Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979, he was committed to constructing a new Baghdad, a city that would resonate across time, placing himself among the great rulers of Mesopotamian history. Until this point, the Iraqi government had been working with Eastern European firms—such as Poland’s Miastoprojekt—to erect structures that embodied the ideals of socialist modernism. Saddam, however, had more monumental ambitions. In 1980, he freed architect Rifat Chadirji from Abu Ghraib prison—the same Abu Ghraib that would later become globally infamous as a site of detainee torture under the George W. Bush administration. Although Chadirji had been given a life sentence for refusing to work on a government project in the 1970s, he was asked to design Saddam’s new Baghdad, a metropolis that would celebrate Saddam and the Ba’ath Party as much as it would also create buildings of lasting architectural value.

Sickened by his treatment under the Ba’athist regime, however, Chadirji had been quietly documenting his work and the broader city of Baghdad through an extensive body of photographs and architectural documents—before he and his wife fled to the United States in 1983. There, Chadirji became a fellow at Harvard University, where his encyclopedic knowledge of modern Baghdad—not to mention his face-to-face experience with Saddam Hussein—would have been an unparalleled resource for students, faculty, and, whatever their real intentions, anyone else hoping to learn about buildings in Iraq.

Mark Wasiuta is an architectural historian, professor, and former colleague of mine at Columbia University. He is also co-curator of a 2016 exhibition featuring work from Chadirji’s archives, called “Every Building In Baghdad” (a title eerily reminiscent of my contact’s comment that the U.S. sought blueprints for “every single building in Iraq”). Wasiuta confirmed that Chadirji did not arrive at Harvard empty-handed. Whether Chadirji fled Iraq with them hidden in his luggage or whether they were only smuggled out of Baghdad years later, Chadirji retained negatives for his photographs of Iraqi cities—a treasure trove of visual information about a place the U.S. military would soon find itself invading.

While Wasiuta was skeptical that Chadirji might have been used as an unwitting intelligence asset, it seemed to me that if there was one architect primed for CIA-style “university exploitation” during the Gulf War, it was Rifat Chadirji. Chadirji himself need not ever have known whether grad students speaking to him were, in fact, innocent pawns in a larger U.S. intelligence game or whether a member of the U.S. intelligence community had been waiting in the back of a lecture hall one night to ask apparently harmless questions after an event. As Daniel Golden reported for The Guardian, a CIA officer once told him that, when it comes to university exploitation, “the more clueless the academics are, the safer it is for everybody.” (My attempts to contact Chadirji, who is currently 91 years old and living in London, were unsuccessful.)

In 2017, the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT acquired Chadirji’s architectural archives as well as a set of more than 100,000 photographs taken in Iraq over the course of 60 years by Chadirji and his father, Kamil. Together, these collections offer a record of everyday life in Iraq for most of the twentieth century. Sharon Smith, director of the Center, spoke with me about Chadirji’s work, cautioning me that, in the 1980s, the overwhelming majority of his photographs and architectural plans would still have been overseas—in Baghdad, at Chadirji’s eventual adopted home in London, and at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. Chadirji also never designed bunkers or other works of military infrastructure, so, in her opinion, he was unlikely to have been the source I was looking for.

However, Smith then reminded me that the Aga Khan Documentation Center also runs a website called Archnet. Founded in 1999, the site is dedicated to the architecture of the Muslim world and hosts “lots of plans and diagrams and maps and GIS data.” In September 2012, Smith told me, a data specialist from the U.S. Air Force got in touch with her to request permission to download the entirety of Archnet’s digital library: every floor plan, every photograph, every city planning map, all the GIS data accumulated by the site over the past two decades. Ominously, after Smith refused this request, the man narrowed his query down only to buildings in Iraq’s neighbor, Iran. Smith, she emphasized, again said no.

If it had initially seemed like a stretch to suggest that the U.S. military might collect open-source architectural information about the Middle East from academic sources, Smith’s story seemed to confirm that, on the contrary, the practice continues today.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, one of the “architects of the air war” in Iraq, is now Dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, Deptula served as “principal attack planner” for U.S. forces in the Gulf. Of all the dozens of sources I’d spoken to and documents I’d uncovered, it seemed to me that Deptula was the one person who would be able to confirm the existence—or not—of the graduate course that had been described to me. Indeed, he would have been the one who actually used its research.

“When I first read your email,” Deptula told me over the phone, “I thought, you know, this sounds a little wacky.” But, he added, architectural information about a target is undeniably important. It is difficult to destroy something if you don’t really know what it is. He gave me an example of a missile strike he had ordered on an air defense operations building in Baghdad. Deptula had designed that strike based on specific information he’d received about the building’s structure, from the thickness of its inner walls to the rock aggregate used in its concrete mix. Architectural details matter.

Although Deptula confirmed that this sort of intelligence was something he—and thus the entire U.S. war effort—relied upon, he also told me that he had no real idea where the information originally came from. During the initial onslaught in January 1991, things were moving fast. What mattered, he told me, was not how his targeting intelligence had been gathered or who had collected it for him, but whether or not it was accurate. What he really could have used back then, he joked, was access to Google Earth.

Retired Colonel John A. Warden, Deptula’s partner back at the Pentagon during the Desert Storm targeting process, is widely considered to be one of the most influential theorists of aerial warfare in the world today. “I would give you a 99.9 percent probability that it didn’t happen,” Warden told me when I asked him about the graduate seminar. On the other hand, he said, finding out what was inside buildings—both their contents and their architectural design—had been an urgent priority for U.S. intelligence operations.

Warden confirmed that U.S. operatives had made contact with subcontractors who worked on facilities in Iraq. Indeed, he said, he had even proposed tracking down Iraqi émigrés who had worked as janitors in Baghdad in order to use their intimate knowledge of building interiors to help plan coalition air strikes. “There would have been, with near certainty, a janitor for every building in Baghdad,” he said to me, “but nobody had tried to access them.”

As Warden described this plan, I realized that it made the idea of U.S. intelligence agents piggybacking on the research of a graduate architecture seminar actually sound quite reasonable. I said as much. “It’s virtually impossible to prove that it didn’t happen,” Warden replied. “Lots of stuff gets buried so deep in the intelligence world that the only people who know about it are the intelligence people, and it never gets used because they didn’t tell anyone about it. Anything can be possible.”

In the end, both men agreed: during preparations for Operation Desert Storm, detailed structural information about Iraqi buildings and cities was exactly what the U.S. military needed. They got ahold of it. And, ultimately, they used it. The actual source of this targeting information—whether it was an architectural seminar in Washington D.C. or a mole in Saddam’s war ministry—was, for Deptula, something for someone else to worry about.

“I didn’t have the sources,” Deptula told me, “nor did I care. I’m not interested in sources and methods. I’m interested in the information.”