This Fake Bomb Detector Is Blamed for Hundreds of Deaths. It’s Still in Use.

Despite being widely discredited, a British-designed bomb detector based on pseudoscience continues to be used at sensitive security sites across the world.

File picture dated November 9, 2009 shows an Iraqi police man holding a ADE651 bomb detector device as he walks along side a stopped vehicle at a checkpoint in central Baghdad.
File picture dated November 9, 2009 shows an Iraqi police man holding a ADE651 bomb detector device as he walks along side a stopped vehicle at a checkpoint in central Baghdad. Photo: Khalil al Murshidi/AFP/Getty Images

THE ADE 651 IS A SMALL, HANDHELD WAND with a plastic grip and a swiveling antenna, designed by a British company named ATSC for the ostensible purpose of finding hidden explosives. I saw one of these devices firsthand last year while driving up to a security checkpoint at Jinnah International airport in Karachi, Pakistan. As our vehicle approached, a security officer walked past us, waving the wand alongside our doors. In theory, had there been a bomb located inside, the device’s antenna would have moved, alerting officials to the danger nearby.

Happily, there wasn’t any bomb.

However, even if there were, the fact is that the ADE 651 wouldn’t actually have found it. In fact, although it remains in use at sensitive security areas throughout the world, the ADE 651 is a complete fraud. A 2010 BBC Newsnight investigation into the device determined that it was based on pseudoscience and amounted to nothing more than a divining rod. Investigators from BBC also found that the ADE-651’s manufacturer sold it with the full knowledge that it was useless at detecting explosives.

The device is once again in the news as it was reportedly used for security screening at hotels in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. A Russian airliner that took off from that city’s airport was recently destroyed in a likely bombing attack by the militant Islamic State group. Speaking to The Independent about the hotel screening, the U.K. Foreign Office stated it would “continue to raise concerns” over the use of the ADE 651.

The sordid story of how the ADE 651 came into use goes back to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the height of the conflict, as the new Iraqi government battled a wave of deadly car bombings, it purchased more than 7,000 ADE 651 units worth tens of millions of dollars in a desperate effort to stop the attacks. Not only did the units not help, the device actually heightened the bloodshed by creating “a false sense of security” that contributed to the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi civilians, according to the inspector general of Iraq’s Interior Ministry. Although the manufacturer claimed the ADE 651 worked via sophisticated “electrostatic ion attraction,” U.S. military officials in Iraq derided its use, describing it as essentially a “magic wand.” Researchers who tested the device found that it served no better than random chance in predicting the location of explosives.

The BBC investigation led to a subsequent export ban on the devices, as well as a 10-year prison sentence for the British businessman, James McCormick, responsible for their manufacture and sale. An employee of McCormick who later became a whistleblower said that after becoming concerned and questioning McCormick about the device, McCormick told him the ADE 651 “does exactly what it’s designed to. It makes money.”

Despite being widely discredited, the imaginary bomb-detecting device, and imitations of it, remain in widespread use. Versions of it are marketed under names such as Quadrotracker, HEDD1, Sniffex, and GT200, and can be bought through online corporate wholesalers.

Some sellers have claimed the device can be reprogrammed to detect other substances, even diseases, by inserting a sticker that responds to “vapors” of the target substance. This purported technical flexibility has led to speculation that a version of the device was being employed by the Egyptian military government in health care. The Egyptian government last year bizarrely claimed to have developed a handheld technology that could detect HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases. Images released of this supposed detector bore striking resemblance to the infamous bomb detector.

Dan Kaszeta, a research fellow at the International Institute for Non-Proliferation Studies and former U.S. Secret Service physical security specialist, has been tracking the proliferation of the fraudulent bomb detectors ever since he was approached by a seller of one in 2006, while he was an employee of the U.S. government.

“The ADE 651 doesn’t work, nor do any of the other devices,” Kaszeta said. “The various pseudoscientific nonsense phrases and sentences used by the sellers to explain how these devices ‘work’ are intended to baffle customers, but there is in fact zero science behind any of them.”

Although it is not precisely known how many of the fake bomb detectors are in circulation, Kaszeta says that sales of the device and similar knockoffs continue in less-developed countries, thanks to corrupt and sometimes credulous local officials. “Any use of such a widely discredited device is dangerous,” Kaszeta said. “People are dead because of these devices.”

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