The US Air Force base in Ramstein is a central and indispensible element in Barack Obama’s controversial use of drones in the war against terror. New documents are creating pressure for both Washington and the German government.
Knowledge is power. Ignorance often means impotence. But sometimes ignorance can be comfortable, if it protects from entanglements, conflicts and trouble. This even applies to the German chancellor.
In the heart of Germany’s Palatinate region — just a few kilometers from the city of Kaiserslautern — the United States maintains its largest military base on foreign soil. The base is best known as a hub for American troops making their way to the Middle East.
But another strategic task of the headquarters of the United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) remained a national secret for years. Even the German government claimed to know nothing when, two years ago, the base became the subject of suspicion. It was alleged that Ramstein is also an important center in President Barack Obama’s drone war against Islamist terror. A former pilot claimed that the data for all drone deployments is routed through the military base.
The report caused quite a stir. Were the deadly precision weapons — which can eliminate al-Qaida terrorists, Taliban fighters or members of the Shabaab militia on the Horn of Africa with apparent clinical precision — guided toward their targets via German soil?
No, the German government said at the time, that’s not quite correct. But even today, the government says it still has “no reliable information” about what exactly is going on. The United States has refused to provide it.
But the Americans’ secretiveness also comes in handy for Berlin. Not knowing anything officially prevents the government from having to take any action.
Berlin’s comfortable position, though, could soon be a thing of the past. Classified documents that have been viewed by SPIEGEL and The Intercept provide the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the architecture of Obama’s “war on terror.”
The documents, which originate from US intelligence sources and are classified as “top secret,” date from July 2012. A diagram shows how the US government structures the deployment of drones. Other documents provide significant insight into how operations in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen are carried out. And they show that a central — and controversial — element of this warfare is played out in Germany.
The graphics show that Ramstein is involved in virtually every Air Force drone attack. Even if the pilots are sitting at Air Force bases in Nevada, Arizona or Missouri, and even if the targets are located on the Horn of Africa or the Arab Peninsula, USAFE headquarters at Ramstein is almost always involved.
“Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do,” says a US intelligence source, who is knowledgable about the US government’s drone program. He declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. “Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now.”
For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the new evidence could be explosive. The air base in southwestern Germany may resemble a piece of Americana with its churches, movie theaters, baseball diamonds and park-like golf course, but it is not an extra-territorial area like the US Embassy in Berlin. The German government has contractually guaranteed the United States use of the property, which is surrounded by barbed wire, but only under the condition that the Americans do nothing there that violates German law.
In the past, whenever media reports emerged presenting evidence of violations of the law at Ramstein; whenever critical members of parliament demanded answers about Germany’s contribution to these airborne executions: The German government always maintained that these were mere assertions. They were, Berlin insisted, countered by American claims that the US was respecting German law.
The veracity of such claims now ought to be reviewed. Just like during the NSA scandal, the German officials are facing the question as to whether massive legal violations may be taking place on German soil.
From Ramstein into Space
The intelligence service diagrams reveal that there are two places in the world right now that are indispensable in the drone war: Ramstein and Creech, a hermetically sealed town in the Nevada desert. The Air Force base, one hour northwest of Las Vegas by car, serves as a relay hub for 10 Air Force bases in different US states. State-of-the-art fiber-optic cables guarantee the rapid transmission of data, which is also sent to the National Security Agency and to Ramstein in Germany.
The trans-Atlantic connection is vital, because every time a drone pilot in Creech begins his mission, he first logs into the Air and Space Operation Center (AOC) in Ramstein. Last year, former pilot Brandon Bryant reported that he used his personnel number to log in to the system in Germany and that he had to enter the identification number of the drone he was charged with flying in order to connect with the aircraft.
At AOC, in a beige-colored, low-rise building, more than 500 US soldiers monitor the air space over Europe and Africa. During the past decade, the Pentagon has invested a considerable amount of money expanding Ramstein for its analysis and hub functions. A dozen enormous satellite dishes installed in a field next to the AOC complex ensure that the reconnaissance experts here don’t miss a single soldier, truck or command post.
Once a connection has been established between the drone pilots in Nevada and AOC in Ramstein, the commands are rerouted from the German base to a satellite. From space they are then transmitted to the drones.
The operation of each unmanned aircraft is directed by a team of specialists. The pilot is responsible for the altitude, direction and speed, while others take care of the infrared and video cameras, in addition to the laser system used for target acquisition. The so-called latency — the time it takes for a signal from the pilot’s joystick to reach the drone — is decisive for precise control.
And this is where Ramstein’s geographical location comes into play. No satellite circling the Earth has the ability to send a signal from Pakistan to the United States directly. The distance is too far and the curvature of the earth too great. But pulling a second relay satellite into the data flow would increase the latency time and make swift responses and precise maneuvers impossible because the video images from the drone would no longer be delivered to the US in real-time. In other words, without assistance from Ramstein, the pilots would more or less be flying blind.
“Ramstein is the focal point for drone communications,” says Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College near New York. The communications infrastructure “is more important to the drone operations than the weapons a drone carries.”
The secret documents that prove this are even more explosive in that they contradict the German government’s position in an additional point as well. According to the documents, the drones are capable of geolocating mobile phones for their deadly attacks. In the past, the Germans would provide the mobile phone numbers of suspects to the Americans as part of their efforts to fight terror — in Afghanistan, for example. The German government justified the practice by claiming that a mobile phone number by itself was not enough to enable a precision air strike.
But the secret documents show that drones equipped with a special geolocating device are able to use mobile phone numbers to locate people precisely enough to make an air strike possible. The system is called “Gilgamesh” and it is screwed onto the bottom side of a drone’s wing. It simulates a mobile phone tower for suspicious numbers. If a target phone logs on to Gilgamesh instead of a standard cell tower, its precise location can be determined. The drone then transfers the data back to Ramstein via satellite.
The air base, which has attracted some 50,000 US citizens to live in the region, already played a prominent role in the very early stages of the US drone war. In his book “Predator,” American author Richard Whittle wrote that, during the summer of 2000, the most important drone flights to that date were commanded out of Ramstein. In the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the as-yet unarmed drones were used to find the camps and whereabouts of his terrorist clan in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Under the greatest secrecy, a satellite station was transported to Ramstein and positioned at the end of the air base runway. They succeeded in tracking bin Laden near Kandahar during the seventh drone flight. Whittle claims that the White House did not inform the German government about the operation.
When a version of the Predator armed with “Hellfire” missiles was ready for deployment only a year later, the Americans presumed they would continue to control the aircraft from Germany. The location had proven itself, not least because the infrastructure could be easily disguised on the giant property.
But Pentagon legal experts expressed concern about dispatching the deadly drones from Ramstein without the knowledge of the German government. The lawyers cited the legal obligations laid out in the US Forces Agreement and warned of possible diplomatic and legal consequences. The Americans didn’t want to risk a veto from the left-leaning government coalition of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats and the Green Party or, worse yet, a situation in which the plans might somehow become public. So they began searching for alternatives, ultimately adopting an American technical expert’s idea to physically separate the pilots from the satellite connections.
Since then, the Americans have felt they were legally safe, but many experts view the situation differently.
The First German Drone Victim
Death is announced with a quiet buzz. The Pashtuns call the American drones “Machay,” or wasps, because of the buzz they make when they are approaching. It’s the same sound heard on the night of Oct. 4, 2010, at a remote farm in Waziristan. Ten adults associated with the jihadist scene and one toddler were sitting and eating dinner that evening in a mud hut. Host Emrah E. left the group in order to take his crying son to another hut.
At 7:30 p.m., Emrah heard a loud blast. “The wooden door flew in and my eyes were full of dirt,” he would later say. “I ran back looking for my brother, calling his name, ‘Bünyamin’. Then I saw him, with shrapnel in the back of his head.”
Bünyamin E. had only first arrived in the Pakistani combat area a few weeks before. He’s the first German citizen to have been killed by an unmanned US aircraft controlled remotely. Emrah and Bünyamin E. are from Wuppertal, Germany. To this day, it remains unclear if the target of the strike was the 20-year-old German or a high-ranking Pashtun who had already left the hut before dinner.
The German Federal Prosecutor’s Office began monitoring the drone war shortly after Bünyamin’s death. Two years later, Chief Federal Prosecutor Harald Range opened a preliminary investigation “to examine whether Bünyamin E.’s violent death qualified as a war crime under Germany’s Code of Crimes Under International Law, passed in 2002 to ensure that foreign war crimes could be prosecuted in German courts.
It appeared to be a bold step. The investigation suggested there was suspicion that the US may have committed war crimes. Almost a year later, though, Range dropped the probe, with investigators concluding that, at the time he was struck by a drone, Bünyamin E. was not considered to be a civilian protected under international law. They determined he had been “the member of an organized, armed group that participated as a party in an armed conflict.” Investigators claimed the German had undergone weapons training in Pakistan and had agreed to die as a suicide bomber. Thus, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office concluded, his killing had been “justified”.
It was the classic blueprint followed routinely by German federal prosecutors for opening and closing investigations into the circumstances of the deaths of German drone victims in the Afghan-Pakistani border region.
Generally, when a person kills someone else with a missile from an aircraft, it is punishable as an act murder. If, however, it is done as part of an act of war, it is permitted under international law. It’s a justification the Pentagon uses quite frequently. The US government considers all drone deployments against the organized terrorism of al-Qaida and its “associated forces” to be part of a global war where the battlefield is any place where the enemy is found.
Still, few international law experts in Europe, and few experts in the foreign ministries of NATO allies, are prepared to accept a US view according to which the entire planet is seen as a theater of war in a conflict where it has an unlimited license to kill.
“It’s highly dangerous,” Claus Kress, director of the Institute for International Peace and Security Law at the University of Cologne, says in reference to the US practice of lumping together small terrorist groups, “who at most are associated through a common ideology but not through a common command” into a single war party that is acting globally. He warns that the practice allows Washington to blow even local problems into something that the US, as some kind of global police force, may address — and to kill wherever it believes its enemy to be.
Although Chief Prosecutor Range did not ultimately initiate a full-fledged investigation into the drone attack on Bünyamin E., he did make clear in his justification for not taking up the case that, from the perspective of German law, this form of combatting terror is unacceptable. It’s a view also shared by Merkel’s government. Attacks, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office wrote, were only justifiable in “actual war zones.” As such, many of the deadly missiles that have been launched from drones over Yemen and Somalia were not justified under international law, in their view. In Pakistan, too, some of the drone attacks could only be considered as war deployments to a very limited extent.
Obama’s war on terror became even more questionable when cases repeatedly emerged in which the US military worked together with intelligence agents to target people wrongly suspected of being leading terrorists.
“Signature strikes” is the term used for such killings, in which targets are chosen on the basis of suspicious behavior. Just several days ago, the New York human rights organization Open Society Justice Initiative announced the results of its research into drone operations in Yemen. It found that 39 civilians, including eight children, have either died or been injured in drone attacks. Germany’s international criminal code provides the German federal prosecutor with the authority to investigate all of the attacks as potential war crimes.
Legal Action against US Soldiers?
That, though, would mean that when drone pilots are provided with data from Ramstein — data which, in several instances, has led to criminal attacks according to German law — then soldiers stationed there are abettors or even co-perpetrators. “It is simply murder,” says Björn Schiffbauer, of the Institute for International Law at the University of Cologne. He argues that Air Force personnel used in the drone attacks could be prosecuted as war criminals by German prosecutors in the city of Zweibrücken, who have authority for the region.
When it comes to war crimes, the widespread view is that the US military cannot claim the immunity extended to representatives of a foreign state. Indeed, Germany’s Code of Crimes provides the country with universal jurisdiction, meaning war crimes, genocide and other violations of international law, even if they are committed by foreigners in other countries, can all be tried here. The code, which is seen as a model around the world, could soon face a real-world test.
Many lawyers believe that immunity also doesn’t apply when it comes to state-authorized homicide outside of wartime, so-called “extrajudicial killings.” At least not on German soil. Here, NATO’s Status of Forces Agreement applies, a legal code which explicitly grants German authorities the right to investigate members of the US military should they be suspected of having committed a crime in the line of duty.
US military criminal investigations take precedence. But if they do nothing, which seems certain in this case, then the Germans may proceed. They are even allowed to perform searches on military bases, provided they give proper advance notification.
But German prosecutors have shown little indication that they are prepared to take advantage of that right. Even to avoid a lawsuit. The Cologne district court is currently hearing the case of three Yemenites against Germany, the relatives of drone victims who are believed to have been civilians. They are suing because it is believed that the drones were controlled using data that was sent through Ramstein.
The statement of defense has since been filed, and the German government has again bluntly denied that it has knowledge pertaining to the central role played by the Ramstein air base in the drone war. Whatever the US military is doing at Ramstein, it is the “independent, sovereign action of a foreign state,” which requires no permit and no review. “It cannot be the duty of the defendant to act as a ‘global prosecutor’ towards other sovereign states,” reads the 19-page document submitted on Jan. 30.
Still, the government admits that it should attempt to put a stop to violations of international law if those breeches are perpetrated at Ramstein. “But this requirement has been sufficiently fulfilled by the defendant by way of its close relations with the US government,” the document states. In other words, it is sufficient that Germany has asked the Americans and that Washington has insisted the US was not violating the law at Ramstein.
“The German government doesn’t ask tough questions because they obviously don’t want to know what is really going on,” says Wolfgang Kaleck, head of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, one of the organizations bringing the Yemen suit against the German government.
For the statement of defense, the German government ultimately needed to provide something about Ramstein that had some kind of legal foundation. So diplomats with the German Foreign Ministry asked the US State Department for a formulation that could be used in the Cologne district court.
Quite some time passed before it was finally provided. But three months ago, senior US diplomat Viktoria Nuland made a visit to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin and repeated the American position. The statement claimed that US drone operations in Africa were not controlled or otherwise carried out from Ramstein. Additionally, orders for the drone missions always came from Washington. Nuland made it clear that the US government considered the statement to be an answer to the catalog of questions Berlin had sent to Washington in April 2014. The Pentagon also informed SPIEGEL that drones are not directly flown or controlled from Ramstein.
Will Berlin Act or Sit Things Out?
The situation is reminiscent of the NSA scandal after SPIEGEL reported that the US intelligence agency had listed a mobile phone belonging to German Chancellor Merkel as a spying target. The US remains silent or disputes the allegation and the Germans are left aghast at the Americans’ audacity.
But it is also true that a significant portion of Berlin’s ignorance about Ramstein is merely feigned, as illustrated by a number of confidential German government memos SPIEGEL has obtained.
On Nov. 18, 2011, for example, the Department of the Army notified the German Defense Ministry of its intention to install a relay station at Ramstein for drone missions. It was one of the central building blocks of the drone war: a field of satellite antennas that allows pilots on American soil to communicate with drones in Arab or African airspace in almost real-time. The Department of the Army wrote to the Germans that the project had been assigned a “very high priority” and that the relay station would allow it to create a “one of a kind control center” for the deployment of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones.
Other reports to the German government indicate that the €6.6 million installation would be erected near Ramp 6 in Ramstein and would include space for “operational, administrative and maintenance functions,” in addition to “mission control vans.”
Mission control? It was apparent from the very beginning that the facility wasn’t merely technical equipment for the relay of data — it was an operational control center manned by real people.
There were some in the German government who sounded early warning bells. After then-President George W. Bush had been turned down by several countries in his search for a location for headquarters for African operations, his diplomats inquired in Berlin in 2007 if they could locate AFRICOM at the Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart. The department responsible at the German Foreign Ministry noted in a memo for top ministry officials that “certain misgivings among the populace” could arise because AFRICOM is also responsible for Somalia and that US military actions there could provide “cause for criticism.”
The German government did America the favor nonetheless — with the request that Bush, in announcing the AFRICOM project, refrain from mentioning it was to be headquartered in Stuttgart.
In the spring of 2013, after detailed reports emerged in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper about the activities of AFRICOM military command headquarters in Stuttgart and about the technical team in Ramstein, concern grew within the German government. First, US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a formal apology and then General Philipp Breedlove ensured that no drones would take off from Ramstein — which nobody had alleged in the first place.
The efforts to reassure were not universally well received. In June 2013, shortly before a visit by President Obama to Berlin, Emily Haber, who was a state secretary in the Foreign Ministry at the time, insisted on demanding an assurance from Washington that US sites in Germany are not involved in “deployments for targeted killings”.
According to an internal memo, however, Haber was overruled: “The Federal Chancellery and the Defense Ministry instead pleaded to ‘sit out’ the pressure from parliament and the public,” the memo read. A few days later, Obama promised the Chancellery, “We do not use Germany as a launching point for unmanned drones … as part of our counterterrorism activities.”
At the Munich Security Conference in February of 2014, Berlin undertook a halfhearted attempt to be direct with its trans-Atlantic partner. A high-ranking delegation met with then-US Defense Minister Chuck Hagel. As is the norm, a statement went back and forth between the two sides prior to the meeting. The desired changes voiced by each party clearly document Berlin’s diffidence.
The US position, the document notes, is clear: The Americans were eager to point out their focus on the continuous execution of drone operations with the aim of targeted killings of al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The Germans’ meeting goal, by contrast, was to inquire about AFRICOM’s participation in deadly drone missions — and, should it be necessary, to point out potential legal problems.
Ultimately, though, they didn’t even find the courage to do that. In one version of the statement, the line is crossed out. A comment in the margin reads: “We should not come from the side of the federal government with legal questions when the actual circumstances are not certain.”
Obama Expands Drone Arsenal
Berlin has long since gotten over Washington’s refusal to answer in detail its questions about the Ramstein issue. Angela Merkel is also pleased that German-American relations have moved beyond the worst stage.
During the past 12 months, the crises in the Middle East and in Ukraine have drawn the two countries closer together again. The radical Islamic State and the open confrontation with Russia have also served to largely divert public attention away from US espionage in Germany and the drone war that is taking place via Ramstein. Internally, those in the German government who continually point out how dependent German authorities are on the Americans in defending the country against terrorism have prevailed.
The chancellor also feels flattered that Obama places his trust in her leadership in the Ukraine crisis. This new sense of closeness led to an unofficial deal the last time Merkel visited Washington in February: If the chancellor were able to achieve a halfway suitable cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, the US president would resist all demands for US weapons deliveries to Kiev. Merkel fulfilled her end of the bargain with the second Minsk agreement. Obama has also held to his pledge. The NSA scandal and the controversial drone war haven’t been forgotten, but, as Berlin government sources say: “There are more important issues.”
Nevertheless, the trans-Atlantic tensions haven’t simply disappeared. Obama even admitted as much during Merkel’s visit. He described the US as having been “consistently your strong partners,” adding, “Occasionally, I would like the German people to give us the benefit of the doubt, given our history, as opposed to assuming the worst.”
There appears to be little chance of swaying Obama to make concessions in the drone war. Shortly after entering office in January 2009, the US president made the decision to rapidly end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to bring the American troops back home. His main aim was to limit American losses, but he also didn’t want to allow the terrorists to win. Nor could pressure on al-Qaida be allowed to slip. Unmanned aircraft seemed to be just the thing. Ultimately, the drone program experienced a dramatic boom, with the number of drone attacks under Obama increasing tenfold relative to the Bush era.
It’s indisputable that drone attacks massively decimated al-Qaida’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the number of civilian victims has also been high. Obama has warned that for all drone attacks “there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” But abandoning the technology is out of the question for him. In its draft defense budget for 2016, the Pentagon has requested €2.9 billion for the procurement of further unmanned aircraft.
Whether or not all of these drones will actually be guided through Ramstein is also uncertain. Three years ago, the US government began researching alternatives, which led them to a US base in Sigonella in southern Italy. A facility similar to the one in Ramstein is now in place there — a “Back-up system to the Ramstein site” that, in the worst-case scenario, prevents “single point of failure.”
By Matthias Bartsch, Maik Baumgärtner, Nikolaus Blome, Thomas Darnstädt, Matthias Gebauer, Hubert Gude, Marcel Rosenbach, Jeremy Scahill, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmidt, Holger Stark and Alfred Weinzierl