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

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

By Geoff Manaugh

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.