This article first appeared on the Drone Warfare website: here
A joint investigation mounted by The Intercept and the German news magazine Der Spiegel has obtained a top-secret US intelligence document confirming that the US military base in Ramstein is the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in the American Southwest to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other targeted countries.
The Intercept’s article is summarised here, with thanks to investigative journalist Felicity Arbuthnot for the link.
US and German government officials have long evaded questions about Ramstein’s role in lethal US drone operations: “The Federal Government has no reliable information in this regard . . . The Federal Government has no information regarding the installation of the satellite system or when it started operating.” However, slides - provided by a whistleblower - map out an intricate web of facilities across the US and the globe: from drone command centers on desert military bases in the US to Ramstein to outposts in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Qatar and Bahrain and back to NSA facilities in Washington and Georgia.
In a 2010 budget request for the Ramstein satellite station, the US Air Force asserted that without the Germany-based facility, the drone program could face “significant degradation of operational capability” that could “have a serious impact on ongoing and future missions”.
The German government has granted the US the right to use the Ramstein property, but only under the condition that the Americans do nothing there that violates German law. But according to Germany’s 2002 Code of Crimes against International Law, American personnel stationed at Ramstein could, in theory, be vulnerable to German prosecution if they provide drone pilots with data used in attacks as German legal officials have suggested that such operations are only justifiable in actual war zones
Legal experts interviewed by Der Spiegel claimed that US personnel could be charged as war criminals by German prosecutors. They argue that if US personnel based at Ramstein are involved in what the government considers an extra-judicial killing in a non-declared war zone, they would not be entitled to immunity — at least not on German soil. The NATO Status of Forces Agreement grants German authorities the right to investigate members of the US military suspected of having committed a crime.
To date, German prosecutors have shown little interest in pursuing such action. The German government position: we have asked the US if they are violating any agreements or laws and the Americans have said no. Case closed.