If one object had to serve as a symbol Iraqi corruption and dysfunctionality, it might be the ADE-651 bomb detector.
Exposed as a fake long ago, it is still employed by the Iraqi security forces to check for explosives and weapons, and goes a long way to explaining how suicide bombers regularly pass through checkpoints undetected. The ADE-651 is a small hand-held plastic device with a silver-coloured wand that is supposed to twitch in the presence of arms and explosives, much like a divining rod. Its promotional material says it can also detect drugs, truffles, ivory and bank notes at distances of up to 1km and operates through walls and under water. It has no power source, but is supposedly charged by static electricity from the body of the operator. The only piece of technology in the ADE-651 is a tag, worth two or three pence, normally attached to items in shops to prevent theft.
The uselessness of this item was apparent from the beginning. Nevertheless, in 2008 the Iraqi Interior Ministry bought 800 of them for £20m and the following year a further 700 for £32m; Iraq was paying up to £60,000 for each unit made from materials worth £50 at most.
In Britain last year James McCormick, a former police officer from Liverpool and director of the security company ATSC which sold the devices, was charged with six counts of fraud. The device continues to be used across Iraq.
Why was the ADE-651 ordered in the first place, why were such enormous prices paid for it and why did it receive official endorsement for so long? Iraqis assume the reason is corruption rampant at all levels in state procurement.
Police officials confirm privately that they know the bomb detector doesn’t work. Police Captain Hussein Ali told me three years ago that “time and again we have found it is useless”. Why then go on using it? One suggestion is that many in the Iraqi security forces believe it is safer to pretend confidence in a fake bomb detector so they do not have to search a dangerous looking vehicle with possibly terminal results for themselves.