Friday, November 6, 2009

Iraq Spent $85 Million on Magical Bomb Detectors

The New York Times had a story Thursday on the infuriating commercial success in Iraq - $85 million in sales and still climbing - of the oldest and most ludicrous scam explosives detector that ever cursed the security market.

Some quotes from the NYT:

BAGHDAD — Despite major bombings that have rattled the nation, and fears of rising violence as American troops withdraw, Iraq’s security forces have been relying on a device to detect bombs and weapons that the United States military and technical experts say is useless.

The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works “on the same principle as a Ouija board” — the power of suggestion — said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.

Still, the Iraqi government has purchased more than 1,500 of the devices, known as the "ADE 651", at costs from $16,500 to $60,000 each. Nearly every police checkpoint, and many Iraqi military checkpoints, have one of the devices, which are now normally used in place of physical inspections of vehicles.

-- snip --

The American military does not use the devices. “I don’t believe there’s a magic wand that can detect explosives,” said Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., who oversees Iraqi police training for the American military. “If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work.”

The Iraqis, however, believe passionately in them. “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives.

-- snip --

Aqeel al-Turaihi, the inspector general for the Ministry of the Interior, reported that the ministry bought 800 of the devices from a company called ATSC (UK) Ltd. for $32 million in 2008, and an unspecified larger quantity for $53 million. Mr. Turaihi said Iraqi officials paid up to $60,000 apiece, when the wands could be purchased for as little as $18,500. He said he had begun an investigation into the no-bid contracts with ATSC.

And here's the bottom line:

Colonel Bidlack said, “When they say they are selling you something that will save your son or daughter on a patrol, they’ve crossed an insupportable line into moral depravity.”

It's not just Iraqis who are buying these devices. They are also being sold to credulous security authorities in Thailand, where there is an active insurgency in the south, under the name "GT-200." From a recent story in the Bangkok Post:

A bomb detection squad later arrived at the scene and searched the area with the help of GT-200 devices, which detected nothing suspicious. Shortly afterwards, the car exploded.

The Mexican police, military, and PEMEX (the national oil company) are also buying these useless playthings, which are marketed as being able to detect drugs as well as explosives. To take a story pulled at random about the Mexican drug wars:

Responding to another call, Espinosa's crew takes up positions behind an army platoon clustered around a warehouse. Federal detectives are breaking open the lock ... Inside, the soldiers discover magazines full of AK-47 bullets scattered across a patio. In the rooms beyond are hundreds of sacks and 55-gallon drums containing chemicals used for making methamphetamines ... It's a major find — but the Mexican military claims credit. Lt. Col. Oswaldo Bejar boasts that his unit has made five busts in eight days in Uruapan, many of them using a chemical-sniffing device known as a GT-200.

By whatever name, it is the same empty box with an antenna sticking out that was debunked by U.S. government testing way back as 1995 when it was called the "Quadro Tracker," and again in 2002 when it was called the "MOLE Programmable Detection System," and yet again in 2005 when it was called the "Sniffex." It's also been sold under the names GT-200 Molecular Detector, the Alpha 6, the Scandec, the PSD-22, and no doubt many others that I'm not aware of.

I'd like to think this is a case of European Enlightenment rationalism (“I don’t believe there’s a magic wand that can detect explosives ... If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work”) versus the traditional magical thinking of the non-western world ("Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs”).

I'd like to think that modern westerners, with all our concern for evidence, proofs, and falsification, would never buy an explosives detector that has absolutely no theoretical basis or credible principle of operation, or any favorable test results, or a successful track record, or even any components inside the box.

Surely rational men would laugh at gibberish like this:

Or at operator training sessions like this:

I'd like to think that. Except, the U.S. military once bought a few of them too.

If the consumers of security products can't be educated out of buying this dangerous fraud, I suggest we at least agree to rename it something more descriptive, like the PLACEBO 60K, the "Predatory Lucrative Advanced Confusinator Explosive-detecting Bankable Opportunity @ $60,000."

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