Iraqi Government Uses Dowsing Rods to Detect Explosives

In November 2009, the New York Times released a story describing the mass acquisition of $85 million worth of “advanced detection equipment” by the fledgling Iraqi government.  These devices, called the ADE 651, are manufactured by a British firm called ATSC Ltd, and exported around the world for as much as $60,000 a unit. They are in use at nearly every Iraqi police and most Iraqi military checkpoints, and have been since 2008.  So, what’s wrong exactly?  To quote Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, these devices “work on the same principle as a Ouija board.”  That’s right, the Iraqi security forces use dowsing rods (the same devices used to search for water in the 1500’s) to look for explosives and drugs.

In a land thick with superstition, many Iraqi soldiers and police officers swear by these devices.  This behavior persists, despite attempts to educate Iraqi personnel as to the inefficacy of the ADE 651 and the proper implementation of demonstrable detection techniques.  Quoting the officer in charge of Iraqi police training by the American military, Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., “I don’t believe there’s a magic wand that can detect explosives.  If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work.” The device manufacturers claim that they can detect everything from human remains to heroin, ivory to gunpowder.  The operator alternates out bar-coded plastic squares (like anti-theft devices in electronics) which specify for which substance the ADE 651 will search.  After suspicions arose, the device was opened by a US Army technical expert to reveal it contained no internal electronic parts – that it is, in fact, simply a curved antenna dangling from a free moving swivel.  The manufacturer’s literature trains the user that walking in place builds a static charge that powers the device, and that this is possible through “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction”.  It is so ludicrous, that our friends at the JREF posted this open invitation to ATSC Ltd that says in part,

“This Foundation will give you our million-dollar prize upon the successful testing of the ADE651® device. Such test can be performed by anyone, anywhere, under your conditions, by you or by any appointed person or persons, in direct satisfaction of any or all of the provisions laid out above by you.”

Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence surrounding the efficacy of the device, the head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives, Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri still claims, “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs.  I know more about this issue than the Americans do.  In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world.” Similar to most advocates of dowsing, al-Jabiri claims that failures in threat detection (such as this one) are due to user-error.  Can you imagine the burden of consciousness for those who feel like their perceived failure as a dowser led to innocent bloodshed?

Amidst all of this moral and intellectual repugnance,  there is a little gleam of redemption.  The director of ATSC, Jim McCormick, was arrested on charges of fraud last week by British authorities, and the export of the ADE 651 was banned.  Despite these new turns, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior has not removed them from use.  They are instead opening an investigation into how the government procured $85 million worth of smoke and mirrors (let’s not forget that US citizens, directly or indirectly, share in this expense).

I would assume that the Iraqi government will eventually remove them from use.  It pains me, however, to consider that checkpoint police and soldiers are forgoing physical examinations for explosives in place of using the ADE 651, a device which they believe is superior technology.  Regardless of the embarrassment that certain Iraqi officials face, Baghdad would be safer tonight if the ADE651 was recalled, and soldiers were left to rely on their keen senses, experience, and skill.


~ by Wil Finley on February 1, 2010.

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