After years of equipping important security checkpoints throughout Iraq with non-functioning bomb detectors, the Iraqi government has finally banned their use. According to an ABC News story, "For nearly a decade, anyone driving through one of Baghdad's many checkpoints was subjected to a search by a soldier pointing a security wand at their vehicle and watching the device intently to see if its antenna moved.
If it pointed at the car, it had supposedly detected a possible bomb. The wands were completely bogus. It had been proven years ago, even before 2013 when two British men were convicted in separate trials on fraud charges for selling the detectors." The wand devices, marketed under various names including ADE651 and GT200, were not faulty nor defective; they were completely useless.
They had no working electronics in them that could detect bombs or anything else. The device has only one moving part, an antenna-like piece of metal that freely swivels, supposedly detecting explosive and other materials. The devices, which have been compared to dowsing rods, were sold for up to $40,000 each in lucrative government contracts eventually totalling $60 million.
Despite clear evidence that the bomb detectors were fake—ranging from fraud convictions to warnings by the U.S. military—many remained in use for years, not only in Baghdad but around the country. Corruption and complacency played a role, and it wasn't until July 3 that the catastrophic toll of these fraudulent devices became too obvious to ignore. That was the day that a massive suicide bombing killed almost 300 people.
According to ABC News, "Officials say the explosives-laden minibus used in the July 3 attack... would have encountered at least half a dozen checkpoints, most of which likely used the wand. Investigators say the vehicle carried a 250-kilogram (550-pound) bomb." The devices have been used in other countries including Mexico and Niger; reporters for Reuters discovered them being used recently at checkpoints in volatile regions of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.
Before we get too smug about the silliness of bogus security measures in the Third World, it's important to note that airport security in the United States (as administered by the Transportation Safety Administration or TSA) operates largely on just this sort of self-deception. As "The Wire" noted, "the TSA's main purpose isn't security so much as 'Security Theater,' or the appearance of safety."
The TSA's security measures (detecting weapons and bombs specifically, using proven technology) have failed undercover tests about 95 percent of the time, making them arguably only marginally better than the bogus devices which will "detect" a few potential threats by random chance. Ironically the devices—though demonstrably worthless—could still conceivably make checkpoints at least slightly more secure.
That's because they can serve as a psychological deterrent, just as fake (or non-functioning) convenience store video cameras make potential shoplifters and robbers think twice. Bogus and counterfeit products are common in the marketplace, ranging from herbal supplements and olive oil to cheese and fish.
Usually the damage to the consumer is financial—paying top dollar for cheap substitutes sold as high-quality products, for example—but sometimes the fraud can be a matter of life or death. There is no way to know exactly how many innocent lives these bogus bomb detectors cost, but one life is too many.
By Ben Radford