How fake bomb detectors made their way from South Carolina to Baghdad

The Washington Post reports: After more than 200 people were killed in a devastating Islamic State bomb attack in the Iraqi capital, Iraqis turned their anger toward a symbol of government corruption and the state’s failure to protect them: fake bomb detectors.

The wand-like devices, little more than an aerial attached to a plastic handle, are still widely in use at security checkpoints around the country even years after the British con man who sold them was arrested for fraud and the U.K. banned their export.

They are used at the entrances to embassies, compounds and government ministries. They are used by security forces at checkpoints such as those on the shopping street at Karrada that was hit in the suicide bombing in the early hours of Sunday morning, and has been targeted numerous times in the past.

As infernos set off by the blast engulfed shopping centers, suffocating and burning to death those inside, Iraqis took to social media to vent about the fake detectors.

An Arabic hashtag began trending for “soup detectors,” mocking the absurdity that these handheld devices can detect explosives. The Ministry of Interior’s website was hacked and a picture of a bloodied baby was posted along with a bomb detector bearing the Islamic State’s markings — making the point that the fake wands aid only those intent on killing civilians. “I don’t know how you sleep at night,” the hacked site read. “Your conscience is dead.”

As anger grew, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Sunday night that all the country’s security forces should remove the handheld devices from checkpoints and that the Ministry of Interior should reopen its investigation into the corrupt deals for the devices.

But they were still in use in Baghdad the following morning, and it’s unclear when the move will be implemented.

“We haven’t received an order yet,” said Muqdad al-Timimi, a police officer at a checkpoint in northern Baghdad who was still using one of the devices. “We know it doesn’t work, everybody knows it doesn’t work and the man who made it is in prison now. But I don’t have any other choice.”

The device, known as the ADE 651, was sold to Iraq by James McCormick, a British man who was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a U.K. court in 2014 for fraud. He had been arrested in 2010 when export of the device was banned by the British government. [Continue reading…]

In 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek reported: The ADE 651, and similar devices sold by McCormick over the decade or so he spent in the explosives-detection business, owe their existence to Wade Quattlebaum, president of Quadro in Harleyville, S.C. At the beginning of the 1990s, Quattlebaum — a sometime car dealer, commercial diver, and treasure hunter whose formal education ended in high school — began promoting a new detection technology he called the Quadro Tracker Positive Molecular Locator, which he claimed could help law enforcement agencies find everything from contraband to missing persons. Quattlebaum said he originally invented the device to find lost balls on the golf course but had since refined it to locate marijuana, cocaine, heroin, gunpowder, and dynamite by detecting the individual “molecular frequency” of each substance.

The Tracker consisted of a handheld unit, with an antenna mounted on a plastic handgrip, and a belt-mounted box slightly smaller than a VHS cassette, built to contain “carbo-crystallized” software cards programmed, Quattlebaum said, with the specific frequency of whatever the user wished to find. No batteries were necessary. The Tracker was powered by the static electricity created by the operator’s own body; when it found what it was looking for, the antenna automatically turned to point at its quarry. Prices for the device varied from $395 for a basic model to $8,000 for one capable of locating individual human beings, which required a Polaroid photograph of the person to be loaded into the programming box. Quadro’s golf ball-finding variant, the Gopher, was available by mail order for just $69.

That Quattlebaum’s gizmo operated independently of any known scientific principles didn’t hurt sales. By the end of 1995, distributors across the U.S. had sold about 1,000 Quadro Trackers to customers including police departments in Georgia and Illinois and school districts in Kansas and Florida. When Ronald Kelly, the agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s office in Beaumont, Tex., learned that a local narcotics task force had bought one, he attended a demonstration in which a Tracker was used to find a brick of cocaine. He wasn’t impressed. “I paid reasonable attention in eighth grade science,” Kelly says now. “I pronounced this bullshit.”

Kelly instructed his agents to bring in an example of the device, ran it through the X-ray machine at the Beaumont courthouse to see what was inside it, and sent it to the FBI labs in Washington. “They said, ‘This is a car antenna and a plastic handle. It doesn’t do anything.’ ”

Further analysis by the FBI and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico established that Quadro’s programming cards were small squares of photocopy paper sandwiched between pieces of plastic. Dale Murray, who examined the device at Sandia, discovered that the Quadro programming method was to take a Polaroid photograph of the desired target — gunpowder, cocaine, or on one occasion, an elephantblow — up the image on a Xerox machine, cut up the copy into fragments, and use these to provide the card with its “molecular signature.” “They had a very naive explanation of how it worked,” Murray says. “They were fascinated by Polaroid photographs.”

Although Kelly is unequivocal about the Quadro principals’ fraudulent intent — “They were con artists,” he says — Murray feels that Quattlebaum, at least, genuinely had faith in it. “I think he did believe in it — it was his invention,” he says. Quattlebaum could have fallen victim to the ideomotor effect, the same psychological phenomenon that convinces users of dowsing rods and Ouija boards that they are witnessing the results of a powerful yet inexplicable force. In response to suggestion or expectation, the body can produce unconscious movements, causing a sensitive, free-swinging mechanism to respond in sympathy. “It’s very compelling, if you’re not aware of what’s causing it,” Murray says. [Continue reading…]

In 1996, a Federal Court imposed a permanent injunction banning the marketing, sale, and distribution of the tracker “and devices of a similar design marketed under a different name.”

The court order noted:

Use of the Quadro Tracker in locating guns or explosives poses a danger to anyone relying on the device for safety. Dangerous weapons or explosives could go undetected and enter schools, airports, office buildings, or any other location where safety is a concern.

Nevertheless, the following year the makers of the tracker were acquitted of fraud. The Associated Press reported:

A jury found Wade Quattlebaum, 63, former president of Quadro Corp., Raymond Fisk, 53, former vice president of the company, and William Long, 57, a distributor of the device, not guilty after deliberating about 11 1/2 hours over three days. The three men — each charged with three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud — were accused of deceiving customers into buying the Quadro Tracker between March 1993 and January 1996.
U.S. Attorney Michael Bradford said he did not know why the jury rejected prosecutors’ claims that the three men committed fraud.

“We felt that we proved that this was a worthless device,” he said. “In fraud you have to prove intent, and perhaps they did not see clear intent to defraud.”

Defense attorneys said even though scientists who testified could not explain how the tracker works, prosecutors did not prove that it was not functional.

In addition, it’s possible that jurors — like potential buyers of the device — were swayed in their judgment by the fact that its use had been endorsed by individuals such as these: William Koopman, Val-Comm Inc., Albuquerque, NM; Steve Lassiter, Drug Task Force, Albuquerque, NM; Larry DeWees, Principal, Farmington High School, NM; Clifford Weber, School Supt., Bloomfield, NM; Nancy Radford, Vice-Principal, Bloomfield H.S., NM; Troy Daniels, Resource Officer, Bloomfield H.S., NM; Ralph Navarre, Principal, Mesa Alta H.S., Bloomfield, NM; Capt. Ben Boozer, Dept. of Corrections, Crozier, VA; Raymond Gomes, Inspector General, Richmond, VA; Sgt. Marilyn Chambers, National Guard, Richmond, VA; Jim Morrison, National Guard, Richmond, VA; Brian Clements, Dir.of Security, Galena Park, Houston TX; Lt. Bill Munk, Police Department, Austin, TX; Don Plybon, US Customs, Charleston, SC; Cpl. Billie Johnson, North Charleston PD, SC; Bruce Parent, FL Dept. of Trans., West Palm Beach, FL; Pip Reaver, Adlerhorst Training School, Riverside, CA; Pete Blauvelt, Nat. Alliance for Safe Schools, Lanham, MD; Michael Ferdinand, Interquest Group, Inc., Houston, TX.

As one observer wrote, the device “turns out to be good only at detecting suckers.”

In 2011, the year after McCormick’s arrest, BBC Newsnight broadcast the following report:


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