A BBC Newsnight investigation has exposed a “useless” bomb detector device currently being used at security check points in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK Government has now banned the export of the British made device and the device’s maker, Jim McCormack, has been arrested on suspicion of fraud.

The Iraqi government has spent 85 million dollars, at a cost of 40 thousand dollars each, on the dowsing-like ADE-651 devices, but there are now fears that they failed to prevent bomb attacks which killed hundreds of military personal and civilians. Sidney Alford a leading explosives expert, said the sale of the devices was “absolutely immoral”.

He told Newsnight; “It could result in people being killed in the dozens, if not hundreds.”

This comes after three recent suicide car bomb attacks in Baghdad, with one attack in December killing over 120 Iraqis.

But the ADE-651 devices had never been shown to work scientifically. The device consists of a rotating rod inside a plastic case and a “programmed substance detection card” which is “tuned into the frequency of a particular explosive”. However, when Newsnight had the cards tested by Cambridge University’s Computer Lab, they were found to be nothing more than store security tags.

Dr Markus Kuhn who tested the cards said; “There is nothing to program in these cards. There is no memory. There is no microcontroller. There is no way any form of information can be stored,” he added. Furthermore, the tags which are supposed to be the heart of such an expensive system cost around two to three pence.

“These are the cheapest bit of electronics that you can get that look vaguely electronic and are sufficiently flat to fit inside a card,” Dr Kuhn told NewsNight.

Even the Iraqis themselves are sceptical about the device. “They don’t work properly,” Umm Muhammad, a retired schoolteacher said. “Sometimes when I drive through checkpoints, the device moves simply because I have medications in my handbag. Sometimes it doesn’t – even when I have the same handbag.”

Concerns about the legitimacy of a virtually identical device were first raised by sceptic and magician, James Randi back in the late 1990s (see below). When the devices were investigated by the FBI and others agencies in laboratory tests, they found that “there were no functioning parts and the device failed very definitive tests.”

The dowsing technique used by the ADE-651 devices, is not new and is well known to be bunk. Australian Skeptics have produced a video testing the effectiveness of dowsing to find water, and after numerous tests, found its success rate was no better than chance.

Watch the full story from the BBC. It’s chilling.

As a sceptic, I have been accused of being closed minded, arrogant and rude. Yet, it seems a healthy dose of scepticism with respect to these crank devices quite possibly would have saved lives in this case.

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