Secretive Agency's Maps to Pave Way for Iraqi Relief
High-Tech Details That Aided Military To Be Released
R. Jeffrey Smith
Relief workers encountered rough conditions during their first week inside Iraq, including gunfire, looted offices, a shortage of supplies and a lack of telephone service and electricity. But they will soon have a new, valuable tool: detailed maps of major Iraqi cities, courtesy of some high-tech work and a policy of increased openness at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
Drawing on both restricted and unclassified satellite photos and archival intelligence on Iraq, the typically secretive military agency has publicly released a street map of Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, that also shows the area's palaces, roads, mosques and industrial sites. It plans to releasesimilar maps of Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk in coming weeks; a detailed street map of Baghdad was released before the war began last month.
NIMA has also helped one of its major contractors -- Space Imaging -- prepare digital maps of 16 Iraqi cities on which public users can highlight such features as pipelines, tunnels, railroads, airfields and land mines. The collection of maps arguably represents the most sophisticated graphic database on the Iraq's infrastructure available. The State Department's Future of Iraq project spent more than $250,000 on it so expatriate Iraqis could assist in the country's reconstruction.
NIMA officials say that while their major aim is to assist U.S. military operations in Iraq, a subsidiary goal is to inform relief workers heading into the country without information on the location of warehouses, hospitals and government buildings in cities damaged by fighting.
"We don't have access to that type of information currently," said Jules Frost, director for emergency response and disaster mitigation at World Vision, a private relief agency.
Similar city maps of a war-torn country were released by NIMA only once before, in 1999, as relief workers and coalition military forces entered Kosovo after an 11-week U.S. bombing campaign. But those maps were mostly derived from old Yugoslav plots rather than satellite images or U.S. intelligence data. No NIMA maps have been released so far to relief workers in Afghanistan, where the military has far less data and U.S. combat operations are continuing.
A few maps derived from satellite photos over Iraq are already available through Web sites organized by the United Nations and the European Space Agency (www.reliefweb.int and www.agoodplacetostart.org). They display concentrations of Iraqi ethnic and religious groups and the locations of Iraqi airfields, water supplies, areas with undernourished children and pollution from oil fires.
But the city maps prepared with NIMA's help are more detailed than those available from other sources and reflect the increasing use in public mapmaking of digitized imagery taken by high-resolution cameras carried by satellites.
NIMA, the intelligence agency formed in 1996 from the Defense Mapping Agency and several photographic interpretation centers, is the dominant player in this field. Based in Bethesda, it has unique access to high-resolution spy satellite photos of most of the Earth, and it has bought and kept off the market selected photos of certain countries that have been snapped by commercial firms. More than 51,000 commercial images are stored in NIMA's library.
To prepare the unclassified map of Tikrit, NIMA's photo analysts used images snapped on five occasions in 2001 and 2002 by Space Imaging's Ikonos satellite, which zooms around the Earth at 17,000 mph, flying a constant orbit between the North and South poles at an altitude of 423 miles. The Ikonos camera can discern objects as small as three feet in diameter; by next year, the firm will have lofted a satellite capable of seeing objects half that size.
Steve Ott, an analyst at NIMA's office in Arnold, Mo. -- it was once the Air Force's aeronautical charts center -- said he had little difficulty discerning the location of five palaces allocated to Hussein or members of his family in Tikrit.
"They have a standard design" everywhere in Iraq, involving lakes and ponds surrounding grand entrances, he said. The city's 15 mosques were also easy to pick out -- the doors all face Mecca, and some had prominent minarets -- as were their10 helipads, many located next to palaces or large manors.
In the photos, Ott said trees looked like the tops of cauliflower; swampland glistened; marketplace tents had a mottled texture with alternating tones of gray; cemeteries were marked by disorderly rock piles with alternating gray and white tones; electrical transformers were denoted by dots connected by thin lines and surrounded by a fence.
After tentatively identifying such sites, Ott and his colleagues double-checked their work by using NIMA's restricted line map and "feature foundation" database, consisting of software that assigns digital markings to key structures. They also consulted NIMA's extensive listings of Iraqi place names. In the end, the analysts effectively undid some of their work, stripping out identifying information still considered sensitive by the U.S. military, including the locations of Iraqi military installations.
As a result, none of the resulting maps -- which are being sold by the U.S. Geological Survey -- are as sophisticated as the classified, digital maps prepared by NIMA for the military's wartime use. Those maps allowed users in Washington or the Central Command's headquarters to click on any site and instantly learn its function and the structure's durability, a key factor in deciding what type of bombs U.S. warplanes dropped.
NIMA officials said that during the Iraq war, they carefully followed rules established in 1999 to ensure that sites were not misidentified. A U.S. bomb that year was aimed by mistake at the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, instead of a military export organization's headquarters down the street.
The Chinese government took no chances during the war in Iraq: It repeatedly published the embassy's address and evacuated all its employees.