When it comes to the drone war or NSA or the “U.S. war machine,” Germany is no more important to our interests than Belgium or Qatar or Guam. It isn’t even a front-line nation anymore, and our spying on the government there isn’t unique or in any way special. There are all sorts of spooky things happening on German soil—spooky, at least, to the public at large—but what’s going on there is not some devious Americanische Fritzkrieg.

But you wouldn’t know it from the various stories that journalists have teased out from the Edward Snowden documents, nor from Friday’s article in the Intercept (which was working in concert with Der Spiegel). Beneath a beautiful and exquisitely au courant “Game of Drones:” illustration, a headline blares, “Germany is the Tell-Tale Heart of America’s Drone War”.

Like much of the coverage of the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s supposedly buccaneering efforts in Germany, the story, which is sourced not to the Snowden documents but to someone “with knowledge of the U.S. government’s drone program,” created the impression of hyperactive U.S. intelligence activity within the country. That characterization doesn’t hold up when you compare what’s happening in Germany today with what happened in the immediate frenzy after 9/11, to say nothing of what happened during the Cold War. In fact, profound technological changes have so altered the geography of spying since the mid-1990s that the very premise of Germany’s centrality to our never ending war on terror—and thus of its victimization at the hands of a hulking U.S. spook apparatus—is wrong.

As a defeated nation, Atomrampe of the nuclear era (where more nuclear weapons were deployed overseas than any other nation) and 50-year home of the occupying army, Germany is host to the largest permanent American overseas military presence, a position, despite significant and ongoing reductions since the Cold War, that will continue well into the upcoming decades. This status is a direct legacy of the Second World War, as evidenced by the fact that the No. 2 country today in terms of permanent U.S. military presence (troops and civilian personnel) is Japan, and the No. 3 is Italy.

Germany is at the center of Europe, economically and geographically, of course, but also in terms of communications, transportation, etc. So, yes, it has drone and intelligence hubs at Ramstein, Darmstadt, and Wiesbaden, and important headquarters in Stuttgart—both for U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and the newer U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), as well as the various subordinate headquarters of both commands. But these locations pre-date 9/11; even Africa Command, created after 9/11, is in Germany because, before its establishment, responsibility for the African continent south of the Sahara rested with the U.S. command in Stuttgart—an out-of-NATO responsibility that once seemed to have little consequence. And Germany hosts the CIA’s largest European base not because of a station focused on spying on Germany, but because Frankfurt is the logistical and transportation center for Europe and the Middle East.

The German media can report on the “role” of Germany in secret prisons, renditions, targeted killing, but despite the country’s magnificent military infrastructure, none of these things ever directly ended up on German soil. Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania—all more opaque countries with far less power—became the hosts of post-9/11 CIA activities. When long-range drones themselves were flown out of Europe at all, they were based in Italy and Turkey (where a significant communications infrastructure had to be built), rather than in Germany.

One could say that either Germany lost out or lucked out. Yet that presence has been profoundly updated and changed in ways that Snowden and the post-Snowden media have failed to convey.

Most interesting today is that those various headquarters and intelligence hubs outnumber combat units left on German soil. The American military presence has not just declined but also shifted significantly. The number of civilians working for the U.S. national security establishment in Germany outnumbers soldiers in uniform by a ratio of five to one, according to numbers I’ve compiled from budget documents and queries with the Defense Department.

Number in Germany

U.S. Military Army




U.S. Army Civilian Employees


Local Nationals (German employees of U.S. forces)


Direct Contractors


Other Defense Department and U.S. Government Civilians


Families of U.S. Military Personnel


Families of Others




Military Retirees and their Families


Grand Total


Retirees and families of U.S. military and civilian personnel (what the military calls “dependents”) number twice as many as soldiers.

Those operational command centers (in Ramstein, Stuttgart, and Darmstadt/Wiesbaden) certainly perform all of the functions associated with the new war against terror: planning, intelligence analysis, targeting, and direction. It is not just Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen, or even the drone war. If an al Qaeda terrorist is killed in Algeria, the order probably came from (or went through) Germany.

But while Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German politicians say in public that friends shouldn’t spy on friends, of course there are private conversations being had, sotto voce. Nothing is going on inside the American bases that contradicts German policy; nothing there happens without German knowledge. That is, not without the knowledge of “certain” Germans in the national security establishment, people are the equivalents of the invisible CIA and NSA executives from America.

But the global intelligence machine has also changed. It’s largely shaken free of its terrestrial moorings and taken up residence, like so much else, in the cloud. The U.S. headquarters for Africa can be in Germany (and the U.S. headquarters for the Middle East can be in Florida) precisely because of modern networks and what we commonly call globalization. They can be anywhere. Optimum? No. AFRICOM is in Stuttgart because there isn’t an attractive place in Africa for thousands of Americans and their families. But the German address is merely an artifact of the pre-9/11 days when Africa south of the Sahara fell within European Command’s bailiwick.

And there is a second issue associated with the cloud, what with the growth of the Internet and IP-based communications, which has supplanted radio and landline wired communications: There are no longer any geographical constraints on where signals intelligence is collected from (even where imagery is collected from). It used to be that people at Teufelsberg in Berlin “listened” in on Soviet and East German conversations through their headphones; or that people in Bad Aibling had to position themselves just so to intercept satellite signals, like some 1950s dad wrestling with the antenna to get a reception on the family Philco set.

But these days, the locus of signal collection is increasingly geography-agnostic. In Der Spiegel, ignorant journalists have written that what goes on in Darmstadt must be suspicious: The installation is so small, one article speculates “many of those working at the facility spend much of their time underground.” And yet the intelligence base Darmstadt has no underground facility and is so small not because there is some bunker lurking beneath; it is so small because much of the work now is being done by computers, and those computers are networked, and what is being collected no longer needs to be collected from Germany. Der Spiegel goes underground in search of the devil of the U.S. when it should be looking up at the gods.

So the sad (or happy) conclusion for Germany is that it is no longer uniquely on the “front lines” of a global confrontation. There is no front line, no Fulda Gap, no Iron Curtain. This can be seen as a loss of influence and erosion of its own sovereignty, or it can be seen as an opportunity for Germany to finally take control of all aspects of its existence, both in foreign and domestic affairs. Of course we should remind ourselves that a huge part of the reason everyday Germans are in the dark about what goes on inside those American bases is because of Berlin’s fear of public displeasure and the consequent influence German popular opinion might exert.

The political “sensitivity” of Germany and U.S.-German relations reveals a hidden power that the country both has and yet seems not to want to publicly exert. Secrecy, perpetrated by the U.S.. machine and then condoned by the Germany government, denies the German people a real choice. Despite all of the post-Snowden huffing and puffing, there seems to be little new appetite for enforcing any major changes in the overall American presence.

In the end, Germany is just another pin on the global map, as solid an ally and collaborator as can possibly be in this post-Snowden world. The country seems to happily wear its own straitjacket—so strategically important and consequently the unfortunate victim of its inflated status. It is an intellectual trap though: Germany still stupidly behaves as if it is being protected by big brother, conveniently forgetting it actually could also be a military grown-up.

Clarification: This post has been updated to make clear that the Intercept story about Germany’s role in the drone program was not based on the Snowden documents.

[Top photo — An MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft passes over the air field during a training mission, May 13, 2013 (U.S. Air Force photo by 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing/Released); Lower photo — U.S. Army Europe closes the final installation in Heidelberg on Sept. 6, 2013 (U.S. Army photo by Dee Crawford/Released)]

You can contact me at william.arkin@gawker.com, and follow us at @gawkerphasezero. If you are into the theater of being underground, you can anonymously deliver tips through the Gawker Media SecureDrop. I’ve got a book on drones coming out in July called Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare. I’m open to your input and your questions, tough questions.