CIA Flights Special Treatment for Uncle Sam?

About 390 CIA-run flights through German airspace were in violation of German law, and Berlin could have collected millions of euros in fines. Now internal investigations could make things embarrassing for Gerhard Schröder's government as well as the United States.

By John Goetz, and

Buffed clean: The German government stands accused of ignoring illegal "renditions" flights by the CIA.

Buffed clean: The German government stands accused of ignoring illegal "renditions" flights by the CIA.

When air traffic controllers hear the code words "ATFM exempt," they know to expect something drastic. Airlines use the code to report a flight when it has sick or severely injured passengers -- or heads of state -- on board. The code is the air-traffic equivalent of flashing blue lights on a city street.

On July 19, 2002, a Gulfstream business jet took off from Frankfurt am Main bound for Amman, Jordan. The flight received an ATFM exempt, although it carried neither patients nor politicians. Instead, the jet was carrying a CIA team that took a Mauritanian terrorism suspect into custody a short time later and eventually flew him to Guántánamo.

This camouflaging of an illegal kidnapping as a rescue flight was no isolated incident. SPIEGEL has obtained complete lists of the flight plans of secret CIA flights in German airspace, which reveal 390 takeoffs and landings of CIA aircraft at airports in Germany between 2002 and 2006. The documents also show that mis-identifying the flights was part of a system designed to dodge compliance with complicated approval regulations.

If the CIA had registered the flight plans correctly, it would have been required to provide details on the purpose of the flights. And once the true reasons for travel were reported -- say, as "kidnapping" or "war on terror" -- Germany's Federal Department of Aviation, the LBA, would have become suspicious (to say the least).

These deceptive maneuvers by the CIA have become the subject of intense scrutiny and debate within German political circles -- from the Ministry of Transportation and the LBA to the Chancellery. Soon a parliamentary committee set up to investigate the German foreign intelligence agency (or BND) will also take up the matter. On Thursday the committee appointed Joachim Jacob, a former federal data protection commissioner, as special investigator on the issue of secret CIA flights. Jacob's job is to determine how much the German government knew about the flights, which European Council investigator Dick Marty has called a "series of illegal acts" by the CIA.

Jacob will also investigate why the German government has been so tight-lipped on the flights. The government "itself had no knowledge of such transports," according to deputy government spokesman Thomas Steg, who added that the government had derived its information from reports in the media. A secret report prepared for the federal government in February 2006 made similar claims.

But the administration will have trouble maintaining this position once the special investigator gets to work. According to internal documents, former Interior Minister Otto Schily was "directly presented" in February 2005 with various press reports about US intelligence agents. At the time Bernhard Falk, the deputy head of Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, was apparently so concerned about the questionable flights that he wrote to the interior ministry: "I recommend … that you inform your senior officials." Falk also suggested that the reports be "made available to other departments that could be involved with such procedures or accusations." Only a week later Falk contacted the interior minister once again to inform him about another press story on the secret flights.

This series of events should have triggered an investigation. Under German aviation law, the false declaration of flights is an infringement subject to fines ranging from €10,000 to €25,000. All told, the 390 CIA flights would have incurred fines of between four and 10 million euros.

And yet nothing happened. Now the government -- which at the time was led by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat -- must face allegations of sacrificing principles to avoid ruffling feathers in Washington, and of not collecting the fines.

In its own defense, the government wrote in a February 2006 report (after current Chancellor Angela Merkel took power) that it continued to "assume that … the flights were conducted in compliance with the regulations of … aviation law."

Experts believe this claim is a farce. Aviation law expert Elmar Giemulla, whose textbook on aviation law the government ironically cites in its 2006 report, calls the affair an "outrageously negligent treatment of German air sovereignty." Ronald Schmid, another aviation law expert, thinks the government wants to "deliberately conceal" the problem.

If the special investigator of the parliamentary investigation committee arrives at similar conclusions, the government will be forced to take action, especially in light of a statement it released last year: "The federal government will use all means available to it to address proven violations."

CIA flights aside, the LBA prosecuted 30 similar incidents in 2006, imposing fines in 27 cases. But LBA's investigative division has been quick to deny any negligence. "We did not receive a request from the Ministry of Transportation to investigate the CIA flights," says the former acting director of the task force, Reinhard Knäblein. "If there had been a request, we would have investigated immediately."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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