BERLIN // The ability to keep a secret is a key requirement for any secret service. So the theft of confidential construction blueprints for the new headquarters of the German foreign intelligence agency can legitimately be described as a setback, and an embarrassing one at that.
German politicians have been pouring scorn on the spy agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) or Federal Intelligence Service, after it emerged at the weekend that plans showing the precise thickness of walls and the location of cables and security gates for part of its new HQ were stolen a year ago from the building site in Berlin. One report said the information was stored on a USB stick.
Steffen Seibert, the spokesman for Angela Merkel, the chancellor, told reporters last week: "This clearly is a serious matter and an investigation has been ordered. A commission has been set up at the BND for this purpose."
Mr Seibert said it was too soon to tell how sensitive and extensive the missing information was. "The government is very interested in having this incident clarified soon so that one can see what action must be taken."
The case has sparked fears that the plans could get into the hands of terrorists or rival intelligence services, which could use them to plant bugs or pierce the BND's security in other ways.
The theft was first reported in the July 11 edition of Focus, a news magazine, which said the missing blueprints included plans for the technical and logistics centre of the BND's headquarters, described by one former BND official as the "heart" of the entire complex.
The magazine quoted another ex-BND agent as saying the theft betrayed "unbelievable sloppiness" and amounted to a "gigantic gaffe".
The €1.5 billion (Dh7.79bn) building, the government's most expensive construction project since unification in 1990, is due to be completed in 2014. Up to 4,000 BND staff will work there after the agency completes its planned move to the capital from its current headquarters in the town of Pullach, near Munich, in southern Germany.
Some politicians voiced concern that parts of the complex would have to be rebuilt, increasing the costs, which have already overshot initial estimates.
The head of the parliament's domestic affairs committee, Wolfgang Bosbach, said: ""It's like real-life satire for a secret service to have secret papers stolen." Mr Bosbach, a member of Mrs Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, said: "I expect the BND to answer the question whether the stolen secret blueprints are so relevant to security that parts of the BND headquarters will have to be rebuilt. And if this is the case, what additional costs this will cause."
On Tuesday, the president of the BND, Ernst Uhrlau, tried to play down the matter. "At the moment I don't see that highly sensitive material has found its way to outside recipients," he said during a press conference.
Mr Uhrlau conceded that he did not yet know precisely which plans had gone missing. But he denied that any reconstruction work would be needed, and said the blueprints in question did not cover the most secret parts of the building.
Mr Uhrlau ruled out the idea that BND staff could have passed on the information, and sought to deflect blame by insisting that a government department, the Federal Construction Office, was in charge of handling the building plans.
The 10-hectare complex, located on the site of the former Stadium of World Youth in eastern Berlin, is subject to tight security, with more than 100 surveillance cameras monitoring every move by the army of construction workers, each of whom has been vetted and undergone checks before being allowed to enter.
But the blueprints were passed on to many contractors and subcontractors. One copy was never returned, Focus reported. At present, it is unclear who took it, and why the matter has only just come to light.
Even if the blueprints do not contain especially sensitive information, the theft still looks bad. Commentators have warned that it might prompt friendly agencies to think again about sharing secrets with the BND.
Wolfgang Neskovic, an MP for the opposition Left Party, said: "The disappearance of the documents confirms doubts about the professionalism of the service."
The BND's record has not been one of unqualified glory. It was set up in 1956, initially staffed by former Nazi agents, and knew the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann, a leading organiser of the Holocaust, several years before he was caught by Israeli agents in Buenos Aires in 1960.
Historians claim the BND was outsmarted by communist rival agencies during the Cold War, and that thousands of its agents and informers had secretly been unmasked and were logged in a KGB database in Moscow.
Its East German counterpart, the foreign intelligence arm of the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, appeared to have been more successful, even managing to place an agent as the right hand man of Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor, in the early 1970s.
Günter Guillaume, a Stasi officer, became Mr Brandt's personal aide in 1972. He was not arrested until 1974 in an espionage scandal that contributed to Mr Brandt's resignation.