Above: Part 4 of Vice's new film on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war.
The ADE 651 is a small device the Iraqi military uses at checkpoints to detect bombs in and underneath cars. There's just one problem: these little wands were proven to be ineffective three years ago.
During a fraud trial in the UK earlier this month, prosecutors claimed that the founder of the company that makes the ADE, James McCormick, had not only not invented the device: he had developed them based on the Gopher, a golf ball finder that runs for about $19. McCormick had them redesigned them to have a "weighty" handle and an "impressive hard container" designed to "add credibility," according to an attorney for the government. McCormick also added "ID cards" for calibrating the device, which were little more than pieces of paper. McCormick then sold them to Iraqi authorities for as much as $60,000 apiece.
The ADE-651 and the Gopher, inset, the golf ball finder on which it was based.
At checkpoints across the country, VICE's Suroosh Alvi recently found that soldiers are still using the devices, which, one claims, have a 20%-30% success rate. That's no better than chance, and a far lower success rate than bomb-sniffing dogs, which are considered a slower and more complicated option. (See the video below.)
Update: On Tuesday April 23, McCormick was convicted of three counts of fraud. “The most insane part of this story," says Suroosh, "is that in spite of the obvious uselessness of the device, in spite of the arrest and trial of Jim McCormick, the Iraqi military and police are still using them at every checkpoint in the city.” He'll be sentenced in May.
All told, the Iraqi government has spent an estimated $122 million on these devices since 2007. According to the US's Inspector General for Iraq reconstruction, McCormick paid as much as $92 million of that back in bribes to Iraqi officials, who may or may not have known of their uselessness. In 2010, the same agency reported that “many lives have been lost due to the wands’ utter ineffectiveness.” All the while, writes the Guardian,
His publicity material claimed the devices could detect minuscule samples of explosives, class A drugs, ivory and human beings at a distance of up to 1km at ground level and from a plane flying 5km high. They could even pick up the target substance if it was up to 30 metres underwater or 10 metres underground and a trace of explosive or narcotic weighing a billionth of the weight of a strand of hair could be detected, according to McCormick's material.
Even for finding golf balls, however, the devices were considered to be useless. A brochure for the ball finder found at Mr McCormick’s farmhouse home read: “Please don’t ask us for the theory of its operation. We just know it works for most people when used properly. It’s a great novelty item that you should have fun with.”
While agencies like the US Justice Department would investigate, it was James Randi, a critic of the paranormal, who may have first publicaly exposed the device. In 2008, he publicly offered McCormick's company $1 million if it could pass a scientific test proving that the device could detect explosives. No one from the company took up the offer.
Other Fake Bomb Sniffers
The ADE 651 isn't the only phony bomb detector floating around the globe. Global Technical’s GT200 and Comstrac’s Alpha 6 are widely prevelant in Thailand. According to leaked cables from the US embassy in Bangkok, each of these devices "looked and felt like a toy," and were not only indirectly responsible for deaths that could have been prevented, but have also been used to carry out widespread human rights abuses, leading to the imprisonment of hundreds of individuals based on the devices’ “detection” of their possession of illegal substances. Despite the embassy report and a new investigation, Thailand's top military officials still insist the devices work.
In 2010, the UK instituted a banning order that prohibited the export to Iraq and Afghanistan of "‘electro-statically powered’ equipment for detecting 'explosives.'" As bribery was at play in the sale of these devices, the fact that they are still being used by police and military around the world reflects an unwillingness on the part of officials to admit wrongdoing. But it also may reflect ignorance, inertia, a dependence on the psychological impact the devices may have on would-be attackers, or simply a lack of any better option.
The machines caused "security insanity for us," Hasaan Salma Khalifa, vice deputy commander of defense operations, told VICE. Dogs would provide a "safety percentage" of around 80-90 percent, says one policeman. "But when we shift to police dogs and consider them having them at all check points," said Khalifa, "there will be no hope in Iraq, as police dogs delay movement to a great extent. Thus we have to rely on this equipment for inspection at checkpoints.
"If you're asking me if this system or if this enforcement group is capable of combatting terrorism or not," he said, "the answer is yes."
McCormick, who denied the three counts of fraud against him, was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison in April.
This story was updated on April 23.