Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Even the Strongest Snake Oil Wears Off Eventually

You don't often get good news out of Iraq, but the WaPo has some today. A big victory for reason over superstition, sincerity over hokum, and sense over snake oil. One of our Iraqi partners has finally determined that the high-tech 'bomb detector' upon which their police and military have relied for years is, in fact, a total fraud.

I've posted about this $60,000 scam bomb detector before, here and here.

From the WaPo:

The Iraqi Interior Ministry inspector general recently determined that wands used by police as the frontline defense in the country's fight against bombs are worthless.

His finding was unsurprising. But in today's Iraq, it had the potential to be politically explosive. What the ministry did in response to the inspector general's conclusion speaks volumes about how the Iraqi government works these days - and why so often it doesn't.

U.S. military officials have been calling the devices a scam for years. The British government this year jailed the manufacturer of the ADE-651 gadgets on fraud charges, and banned the company from exporting more [here].

But as damning evidence against the wands mounted, senior Iraqi security officials, including Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, said the critics were uninformed and swore that the devices - which are supposed to detect explosives inside vehicles and prompt police to search them manually - had saved countless lives.

When faced with the inspector general's findings, Interior Ministry officials didn't pull the devices from hundreds of checkpoints that snarl traffic around Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Instead, they shelved the report and quietly granted immunity to the official who signed the no-bid contracts worth at least $85 million.

The only public mention of the finding was a small blurb in the report to Congress submitted by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction last week [here]. The Iraqi ministry's inspector general, Aqeel Al Turaihi, "reports that many lives have been lost due to the wands' utter ineffectiveness," the report said.

The devices remain ubiquitous across Iraq.

-- snip --

American military explosives experts found [belief in the ADE-651's effectiveness] laughable. Worried about the effect that relying on the device could have on their effort to interdict the slew of bombs that were killing Iraqis and American soldiers daily, many U.S. officers tried to persuade their Iraqi counterparts to ditch them.

In one of many attempts, a team of American officers in 2008 asked Iraqi soldiers trained to use the ADE-651 to demonstrate whether the devices could determine which vehicle parked inside a U.S. base contained dynamite.

The operator's wand tilted toward a couple of vehicles. Neither, it turned out, contained explosives, according to a U.S. military official who participated in the exercise and spoke about it on the condition of anonymity.

"The entire time his American assistant had a stick of C4 under his uniform," the officer said. "It was like a Monty Python sketch gone horribly wrong."

-- snip --

The interior minister stood his ground, telling state-run Iraqiya television station in January that the wands had prevented more than 16,000 bombs. The Iraqi government has not disclosed who authorized the orders.

Ministry officials at the time surveyed policemen at checkpoints about whether the devices were showing results.

"We told them they were working fine," an Iraqi police lieutenant said Wednesday, standing next to a checkpoint where his men were using the wands near the neighborhood where a Catholic church was attacked Sunday by a band of suicide bombers. "That's what they wanted to hear," he added. "They want to try to give citizens an image of security that is false."

That attitude infuriates many American officers who have fought in Iraq.
"I'm finding it harder and harder to see any humor in this," Lt. Col. Dennis Yates, who was among the device's critics when he last served in Baghdad in 2008. "This piece of junk did, in fact, significantly contribute to an unknown - and pathetically large - loss of innocent lives. The guy who bought it should rot in one of the stinking jails that dot Baghdad."

That guy should not be the only one rotting in jail, because Iraq is far from the only victim of the ADE-651 scam. Security forces in Thailand and Mexico, among other countries, are still loyal customers. So is Pakistan, where I saw the devices in use by airport police in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi last month. I'm hoping they didn't use U.S. funds to buy them, but I'm afraid to find out.

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