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Opinion

Opinion: The BND intelligence service and its weak spots

Germany's foreign intelligence agency has been grappling with image problems due to its role in the NSA espionage scandal. Now, it faces a new problem that is potentially worrying, says DW's Marcel Fürstenau.

The BND will have to put up with some derision and mockery: "Watergate at new BND headquarters", the Berlin Tagesspiegel headline reads.

It’s a play on words with a background that is good for a laugh - to a point. The gigantic construction site of the agency's new headquarters in the German capital has been partly flooded by unknown saboteurs.

Reportedly, faucets were stolen throughout several of the buildings' floors - in itself not a major problem, in particular because they weren't made of gold. But the flooding is said to have caused millions of euros in damage: the water made its way unhindered into drop ceilings, the electrical wiring and the security systems.

And add to that, of course, the tremendous damage to the agency's image.

Costs for the 100,000 square meter property had already gotten out of hand, and now they are bound to skyrocket once again. Initially, 730 million euros ($812 million) were earmarked for the project, but estimates meanwhile now top one billion euros. So even before the faucets were stolen, things were out of whack. But financial costs are not the only reason the BND looks crestfallen - like a "wet poodle", as the saying goes. Ordinary citizens and experts alike wonder how laid-back the work is at the country's supposedly most closely guarded construction site.

Loot with little value

Marcel Fürstenau

DW's Marcel Fürstenau

Four years ago, building plans containing security information simply vanished. The leak was never discovered, and that's what might happen this time, too. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to assume that the thief or thieves are among those with access to the site.

Despite hundreds of video cameras and guards on patrol, sanitary fittings disappear unnoticed - items that can be purchased at low cost at any hardware store. In any case, the ridiculous loot has no value on the black market and it certainly isn't worth the risk.

So those responsible will have to put up with some critical questions. What does the Berlin "Watergate" tell us about the overall state of the bureau? In the case of critical abstract or concrete threat, the BND is responsible for the country's and its citizens' safety.

But how reliable and effective is an intelligence agency that can't even secure its own headquarters? Where faucets are visibly missing, perhaps there are a few other -invisible - things. Who can rule out bugs of the wire-tapping variety stashed somewhere on the huge premises?.

NSA, GCHQ annoyed at BND

The embarrassing mishap is likely to have caused a mix of gloating and concern at the headquarters of the BND's US and British partner agencies. The NSA and the GCHQ have long been annoyed with the German bureau's behavior. For the past year, the BND has been at the center of a parliamentary inquiry aimed at finding out whether the German foreign intelligence service violated German law in collecting and passing on data to its western partners.

The NSA and GCHQ are suspicious of the German independent inquiry's curiosity. And although both the BND and the federal government permanently withhold important information, the inquiry manages to shed some light on the matter, little by little.

In their intelligence agency logic, the NSA and GCHQ increasingly regard the BND as a security risk. The fact that their German colleagues can't even protect their unfinished maximum security building in the heart of the government district in Berlin is bound to heighten the scepticism and add grist to the mill.

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