The Bizarre Story of How Drones Helped Get Us Into the Iraq War

Senators were told that Saddam Hussein could deliver biological and chemical weapons to America via unmanned drones.

drone sky full reuters .jpg
Reuters

Critics of America's drone war occasionally ask its supporters to imagine how they would feel if unmanned aerial vehicles were weaponized and sent by foreign powers to attack American cities. What's always forgotten is the time when the U.S. Senate confronted that possibility. It scared them. In fact, one senator said his alarm helped persuade him to approve the war in Iraq.

I know, that doesn't make any sense. Saddam Hussein didn't have a drone fleet capable of reaching America. As you'll recall, however, Congress was told a lot of things about Iraqi weapons that didn't turn out to be true. We remember the talk of WMDs, but we've forgotten the drones.

Senator Ben Nelson recounted the episode for the Congressional Record in 2004. One of 77 senators to vote for the Iraq War resolution, he wanted to share information "that had a great deal of bearing on my conclusion to vote for that resolution," because it convinced him that the U.S. was in "imminent peril."

He continued:

I, along with nearly every Senator in this Chamber, in that secure room of this Capitol complex, was not only told there were weapons of mass destruction--specifically chemical and biological--but I was looked at straight in the face and told that Saddam Hussein had the means of delivering those biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction by unmanned drones, called UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles. Further, I was looked at straight in the face and told that UAVs could be launched from ships off the Atlantic coast to attack eastern seaboard cities of the United States. Is it any wonder that I concluded there was an imminent peril to the United States?

By 2004 he knew it wasn't true -- go here for the rest of that story. There isn't any new information there. But it's interesting to revisit America's drone fears now that we've used the technology to kill more people than any other country, and to normalize its use in ways that may forever change the course of civilization. "Iran's defense minister said Sunday that Hezbollah's launch of a drone into Israeli airspace earlier this week proves the Islamic Republic's military capabilities," the Associated Press reports. This isn't likely to end while either.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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