A Skeptical Engineer
“Inventor” of Fake Bomb Detector Headed to Jail, Finally

“Inventor” of Fake Bomb Detector Headed to Jail, Finally

For years, Iraqi security forces have been using the ADE-651, a device its inventor said could detect humans, elephants, 100-dollar bills, explosives, and practically anything else, if the right detection card was inserted. Iraqis used the devices to find bombs, paying $85 million to purchase hundreds of them at $40,000 apiece. The devices also went to security forces in 20 countries including Pakistan, Thailand, and Lebanon.

The inventor, James McCormick, assured Iraqi officials that the detector worked and that it uses the same principles behind dowsing. That should have been a clue.

Several Universities and laboratories, including Sandia National Lab, questioned McCormick’s claims and took apart ADEs and similar devices to see what made them tick. The handheld device consisted of a swivelling aerial mounted to a hinge on a hand grip; there were no batteries and no source of power or electricity. Not to worry. The glossy brochure touting the ADE clearly says the unit is powered by the user’s static electricity. And the so-called detector cards were RFID tags used by stores to stop shoplifting. As one academic said: “There is nothing in these cards. There is no memory, no microcontroller. There is no way any information of any kind can be stored.”

After several bombs made it past ADE-defended checkpoints, McCormick and an Iraqi official General Jihad al-Jabiri, head of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combatting Explosives, defended the device. The general said he “did not care about Sandia” and that he knew more about bombs than the Americans. “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is that it detects bombs,” he said.

Security personnel manning checkpoints were told they needed to be relaxed, not stressed or with high heart rates, to ensure the detectors worked. This seems a tall order, much like asking a young soldier to be calm in his first major firefight. But the caveat did let Iraqi officials blame the operators, not the detectors.

By 2010 the British legal system caught up with McCormick, charging him with fraud. Just recently, McCormick, who cleared an estimated $75 million in this scam, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In Iraq, al-Jabiri was also jailed, along with other police officials.


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