This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Admittedly, before George W. Bush had his fever dream, the United States had already put its first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drone surveillance planes in the skies over Kosovo in the late 1990s. By November 2001, it had armed them with missiles and was flying them over Afghanistan.
In November 2002, a Predator drone would loose a Hellfire missile on a car in Yemen, a country with which we weren’t at war. Six suspected Al Qaeda members, including a suspect in the bombing of the destroyer the USS Cole would be turned into twisted metal and ash—the first "targeted killings" of the American robotic era.
Just two months earlier, in September 2002, as the Bush administration was "introducing" its campaign to sell an invasion of Iraq to Congress and the American people, CIA Director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney "trooped up to Capitol Hill" to brief four top Senate and House leaders on a hair-raising threat to the country. A "smoking gun" had been uncovered.
According to "new intelligence," Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had in his possession unmanned aerial vehicles advanced enough to be armed with biological and chemical weaponry. Worse yet, these were capable—so the CIA director and vice president claimed—of spraying those weapons of mass destruction over cities on the East Coast of the United States. It was just the sort of evil plan you might have expected from a man regularly compared to Adolf Hitler in our media, and the news evidently made an impression in Congress.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, said that he voted for the administration’s resolution authorizing force in Iraq because "I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard."
In a speech in October 2002, President Bush then offered a version of this apocalyptic nightmare to the American public. Of course, like Saddam’s supposed ability to produce "mushroom clouds" over American cities, the Iraqi autocrat’s advanced UAVs (along with the ships needed to position them off the US coast) were a feverish fantasy of the Bush era and would soon enough be forgotten. Instead, in the years to come, it would be American pilotless drones that would repeatedly attack Iraqi urban areas with Hellfire missiles and bombs.