Iraqi government still using bomb detectors it knows are faulty

James McCormick was sentenced in Britain weeks ago for selling the same fake bomb detectors in Iraq during the war.

Karim Kadim/AP
An Iraqi police officer uses a bomb detector at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, Iraq, in 2010.

In 2008 or so, magical ADE651 "bomb detectors" began turning up at Iraqi-managed checkpoints. Almost immediately, people I knew who seemed to know something about explosives were laughing about them. Even people like me who knew nothing about explosives were laughing about them, since they looked like old television antennas sticking out of the spout of a trigger-handled garden hose – sort of like a ray gun that Calvin would cobble together in his garage to shoot at Hobbes.

Within a few months it turned out the experts were right. The "machines," produced in Britain, were debunked as part of a highly lucrative scam and only a little more effective than a dowsing rod (that is, hardly at all).

But Iraqi soldiers and police were told the lie that it would keep the Iraqi people safe and instructed to wave the magic wands over cars for years. How many car bombs made it through checkpoints that had abandoned more effective measures (like actual physical searches or the use of dogs) over those years? How many people died as a result? No one will ever know. But the number well may be high, since tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed by car bombs in the decade.

In 2008 there were ambitious claims being made that the things worked, and the Iraqi government was desperate to stop a wave of car bombs that were reaching a crescendo around 2007. While the government was incompetent, it was perhaps forgiveable that it was believing something that was unlikely to be true, perhaps out of desperation and inexperience.

Well. It turns out the detectors are still in use in Iraq today, on the order of the interior ministry and weeks after James McCormick, the grifter who made about $85 million selling the fake detectors to Iraq, was sentenced to 10 years in jail, the maximum because the British judge was incensed that his greed had almost certainly cost Iraqis their lives.

In other words, not only has there not been any accountability in Iraq yet (it's hard to ever imagine, in the Iraqi political context, a no-bid series of contracts like the ones given to McCormick without substantial kickbacks) but people either embarrassed at their gullibility or guilty of graft are still putting their own people in harms way to protect themselves.

That's as stunning and direct a failure of political leadership as you'll find. This week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has defended the devices, saying "some" of them work. Former Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani, under whose watch the deals were signed, has likewise defended them. And persistent reports are coming in that they're in use around Iraq.

At least one Iraqi lawmaker has claimed that the scam reaches into the highest parts of the military and that Mr. Bulani was involved. But, as yet, there's no signs of an investigation, let alone a prosecution or senior officials. 

The incident is just among the most cartoonishly clear of the callousness and venality of large swathes of the political class in the new Iraq, and just one of the running sores that will continue to make it an extremely violent and unstable place.

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