The bomb detector that bombed

Research suggests the devices are useless, and possibly dangerous

The bomb detector that bombedIn 2008-09, the Iraqi government spent $85 million to purchase 2,000 bomb detectors for use at security roadblocks across the country. Problem is, they don’t work.

The device, produced by ATSC (U.K.) Ltd., is a dowsing-rod-style bomb detector—basically, a piece of gun-shaped plastic with a metal wand sticking out of one end. It requires no batteries—it’s supposedly charged by the user’s body—and claims to detect dangerous materials thanks to a piece of paper that is “electrostatically matched” to the “ionic charge and structure” of ammunition, bombs and other contraband.

If that process of detection sounds ridiculous, it is: explosives experts, the British government and the U.S. Justice Department have all confirmed that the devices are useless. “They are positively dangerous in giving a sense of assurance that is exceedingly ill-founded,” says Sidney Alford, a British explosives engineer. “Lives have almost certainly been lost in consequence.”

In fact, Jim McCormick, managing director of ATSC, was arrested on fraud charges last month, and as of last week the British government has banned the export of the devices to Iraq and Afghanistan. But ATSC and other companies have already sold the detectors to at least 20 other countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. (Even the U.S. government bought eight similar devices in 2007 from Nevada-based company Sniffex for almost $50,000.)

The Iraqi government has stood by its decision to use the device; while an investigation into its effectiveness was announced last week, security forces plan to keep them until the probe is finished. And Jawad al-Bolani, Iraq’s interior minister, recently said that the detectors have saved lives by preventing the detonation of “more than 16,000 bombs.”