ADE 651

bomb sniffer

The ADE 651 is a fake bomb detector produced by ATSC (UK), which claimed that the device could effectively and accurately, from long range, detect the presence and location of various types of explosives, drugs, ivory, and other substances. The device has been sold to 20 countries in the Middle East and Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan, for as much as US$60,000 each. The Iraqi government is said to have spent £52 million on the devices.

Investigations by the BBC and other organizations found that the device is little more than a ‘glorified dowsing rod’ with no ability to perform its claimed functions. In 2010, export of the device was banned by the British government and the managing director of ATSC was arrested on suspicion of fraud. The company was dissolved in 2013, and the founder, Jim McCormick, was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Similar ‘bomb sniffing’ devices, which are still widely used, have also come under scrutiny in the wake of the revelations about the ADE 651.

The ADE 651 consists of a swivelling antenna mounted via a hinge to a plastic handgrip. It requires no battery or other power source; its manufacturer claimed that it is powered solely by the user’s static electricity. To use the device, the operator must walk for a few moments to ‘charge’ it before holding it at right angles to the body. After a substance-specific ‘programmed substance detection card’ is inserted, the device is supposed to swivel in the user’s hand to point its antenna in the direction of the target substance. The cards are claimed to be designed to ‘tune into’ the ‘frequency’ of a particular explosive or other substance. According to Husam Muhammad, an Iraqi police officer and user of the ADE 651, using the device properly is more of an art than a science: ‘If we are tense, the device doesn’t work correctly. I start slow, and relax my body, and I try to clear my mind.’ The cards were supposedly ‘programmed’ or ‘activated’ by being placed in a jar for a week along with a sample of the target substance to absorb the substance’s ‘vapors.’ Initially, McCormick reportedly used his own blood to ‘program’ the cards for detecting human tissue, but eventually gave up even the pretense of ‘programming’ them when demand for the devices was at its peak.

The promotional material issued by ATSC claimed that the ADE 651 could detect items including guns, ammunition, drugs, truffles, human bodies, contraband ivory, and bank notes at distances of up to 1 km, underground, through walls, underwater or even from airplanes at an altitude of up to 5 km. In one promotional video McCormick claimed that the device could detect elephants 30 miles away. The device was said to work on the principle of ‘electrostatic magnetic ion attraction.’ It was claimed to penetrate lead, other metals, concrete, and other matter (including objects hidden in the body) ‘used in attempts to block the attraction.’ Prosec, a Lebanese reseller of the ADE 651, claimed on its website that the device works on nuclear quadrupole resonance (NQR) or nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). McCormick told the BBC in 2010 that ‘the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar.’

The ADE 651 is a descendant of the ‘Quadro Tracker Positive Molecular Locator’ produced in the 1990s by Wade Quattlebaum, a South Carolina car dealer, commercial diver, and treasure hunter. The Quadro Tracker was promoted by Quattlebaum initially as a device to find lost golf balls, and later as a means of detecting marijuana, cocaine, heroin, gunpowder, and dynamite using ‘carbo-crystallized’ software cards. Like the ADE 651, it consisted of a hand unit on which a swinging antenna was mounted, linked to a box worn on the belt in which the cards were inserted to identify the ‘molecular frequency’ of whatever the user wanted to detect. The cards were ‘programmed’ by photocopying a Polaroid photograph of the target, cutting up the resulting copy and pasting the pieces between two squares of plastic. Quattlebaum sold the devices at prices of between $395 and $8,000 for a unit claimed to be capable of detecting humans, using a Polaroid photograph of the individual concerned for the ‘programming.’ A cheaper variant called the ‘Golfinder’ or ‘Gopher’ was available for $69.

Although the Quadro Tracker was enjoined from being manufactured or sold in the United States after a 1996 federal court case, Quadro’s four principal figures escaped criminal sanctions after a jury failed to convict them. The company’s secretary, Malcolm Stig Roe, moved to the United Kingdom after jumping bail and set up two new companies to sell fake detection devices. Some of the distribution agents broke away and began producing their own copies of the Quadro Tracker, such as the ‘Alpha 6,’ ‘Mole Programmable Substance Detector,’ ‘Sniffex,’ and ‘GT200.’ The huge increase in security spending that followed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States opened up lucrative opportunities for sellers of security equipment.

The ADE 651’s inventor Jim McCormick, a former Merseyside Police officer, was previously a salesman specializing in communications equipment but had no scientific or technical background. He established a private limited company in 1997 under the name ‘Broadcasting and Telecommunications Ltd,’ which he subsequently renamed ‘Advanced Tactical Security & Communications Ltd’ (ATSC). After he came across the Mole in 2000, McCormick signed up as a distribution agent, paying the UK-based manufacturer £10,000 for a single unit. The device was withdrawn from sale only a year later after it was investigated by Sandia National Laboratories on behalf of the US National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, and was found to be useless.

McCormick responded to this setback by copying Quadro’s Golfinder, sticking an ATSC label onto it, renaming it the ADE (Advanced Detection Equipment) 100, and marketing it as a bomb detector. A subsequent revision of the design, called the ADE 101, was sold for up to $7,000 per unit. He also marketed a version called the ADE 650. The ADE 651 was a further development of the same design. According to an associate of ATSC, the devices were manufactured at a cost of £150 ($250) each by suppliers in Britain and Romania. The associate told ‘The New York Times’: ‘Everyone at ATSC knew there was nothing inside the ADE 651.’ A whistleblower who worked with McCormick to sell the device around the world told the BBC that he once challenged McCormick over the device’s effectiveness. McCormick was said to have answered that the device did ‘exactly what it’s meant to … it makes money.’

The ADE 651 has been used at hundreds of Iraqi police and Iraqi military checkpoints across the country, often replacing physical inspections of vehicles. Major-General Jihad al-Jabiri of the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives has defended the device: ‘Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is detecting bombs. I don’t care what they say. I know more about bombs than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world.’ He told a press conference that the ADE 651 has detected ‘hundreds of roadside bombs and car bombs’ and any deficiencies were due to defective training in the device’s use. In 2011, General al-Jabiri was arrested on corruption charges, centering on the ADE 651 device purchase. He was subsequently convicted of taking millions of dollars of bribes from McCormick and was imprisoned along with two other Iraqi officials. Up to 15 Iraqis are said to have been on McCormick’s payroll, receiving money through a bank in Beirut.

The Iraqi Interior Minister, Jawad al-Bulani, was also a defender of the device, telling Al Iraqiya television that the ADE 651 had ‘managed to prevent and detect more than 16,000 bombs that would be a threat to people’s life and more than 733 car bombs were defused.’ He said: ‘Iraq is considered as a market area for many companies producing such devices … and there are other rival companies trying to belittle the efficiency of these instruments the government is buying.’ Iraqi civilians have complained that the device seems to have ‘an unerring attraction to shampoo and soapsuds.’ According to Iraqi police officer Jasim Hussein, ‘The vast majority of the people we stop, it’s because of their perfume.’ A fellow officer, Hasan Ouda, commented that ‘Most people now understand it’s what gets them searched, so they don’t use as much.’ McCormick of ATSC falsely claimed that the apparent responsiveness of the ADE 651 was due to fragrances containing traces of the explosive substance RDX.

Caroline Hawley and Meirion Jones from the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ program investigated the ADE 651 in a report broadcast in 2010, asking the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory to assess one of the ‘programmed substance detection cards’ used in the device to detect TNT. The laboratory found that the card contained only a standard radio frequency security tag of the type used in stores to prevent shoplifting. According to the laboratory’s Dr. Markus Kuhn, it was ‘impossible’ for the card to detect anything and it had ‘absolutely nothing to do with the detection of TNT.’ The card could not be programmed, had no memory, no microprocessor and no form of information could be stored on it. Despite the high cost of the devices, the cards were worth only about two to three pence (3–5¢) each.

Kuhn commented: ‘These are the cheapest bit of electronics that you can get that look vaguely electronic and are sufficiently flat to fit inside a card.’ The ‘card reader’ was found to be an empty plastic box. Psychology professor Bruce Hood has noted that the swinging of the antenna is merely due to its loose assembly and unconscious wrist movements by the user (ideomotor phenomenon). Explosives expert Sidney Alford described the device as ‘immoral,’ telling ‘Newsnight’ that ‘it could result in people being killed in the dozens, if not hundreds.’ McCormick refused to be interviewed by ‘Newsnight,’ but told the ‘New York Times’ that ATSC had been dealing with doubters for ten years and that the device was merely being criticized because of its ‘primitive’ appearance. He said: ‘We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.’

At his criminal trial, it was disclosed that McCormick had made millions of pounds from sales of the ADE 651, with which he had bought a farmhouse in Somerset, Nicolas Cage’s former £3.5 million house in Bath with its own basement swimming pool, holiday homes in Cyprus and Florida, a £600,000 luxury yacht, and three horses for one of his daughters. The police declared that they would seek to ‘pursue his wealth’ using the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. In passing sentence, Mr. Justice Hone said: ‘Your fraudulent conduct in selling so many useless devices for simply enormous profit promoted a false sense of security and in all probability materially contributed to causing death and injury to innocent individuals.’ The judge noted that McCormick had not expressed any remorse or recognition of wrongdoing and said that his ‘culpability as a fraudster has to be placed in the highest category.’








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