A Dowsing Rod Bomb Detector?

Early this week, police in the United Kingdom arrested Jim McCormick, the director of a company that sold thousands of allegedly fraudulent bomb detecting equipment devices to the Iraqi Army, which has been paying the price in maimed bomb squads and raising the possibity of mass casualties caused by undetected explosives passing through security checkpoints.

The UK also banned the export of the equipment, presumably putting the company, ATSC, out of business. However, similar bomb detection devices, manufactured by a UK-based firm called Global Technical Ltd, are being peddled to militaries in Thailand and the Philippines and possibly to others around Asia through a Singapore-based company called Electronic K9 Singapore Pte Ltd, which has a Manila website, and a second in Thailand called Avia Satcom Ltd.

Given the number of deaths reported to military personnel using these types of devices in several countries, and the widespread publicity given to their lack of effectiveness, it raises questions why military leaders in the Philippines, Thailand and other countries are having anything to do with them. US and British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan famously won’t go near anybody using them due to profound mistrust over their effectiveness.

The devices have been likened by critics to dowsing rods, forked wooden sticks that supposedly will point to the ground when the person holding one walks over an area where water might be found. According to a BBC report, the only electronic equipment contained within the device, claimed by the maker to be powered by static electricity generated by the operator, was a security tag used by retailers to detect shoplifted goods.

Critics question whether military procurement officials aren’t being lured by commissions from the manufacturers to purchase the devices. The companies selling the devices appear to be concentrating on third-world countries where procurement officials are more malleable. The Thai purchases, according to a Thai NGO called the Working Group on Justice and Peace, were via a ‘secret budget’ which gives makes the military procurement officers unaccountable to the Thai parliament.

Calls to Electronic K9 in the Philippines were not answered. An answering machine in Singapore picked up the call and announced that callers had reached someone named Dennis Chia. He did not return the call. A call to Global Technical in the UK reached a secretary who referred the call to a David Vousden, who said by email that he would reply to questions next week. Told that a story was being prepared for release today, he didn't respond. The Singapore police, asking if any complaints had been filed against Electronic K9, said they only responded to requests for information from other police departments.

Critics, however, say the bomb-detector being peddled by Electronic K9 and called a GT200, isn't much better than a divining rod and that in fact it has caused several deaths to bomb detection personnel in Thailand and other areas when it failed to detect any explosives, which then detonated, according to a November news release by a Thai NGO called the Working Group on Justice and Peace.

Electronic K9's Singapore website asks: "A Bullet in a haystack? From search, detection to forensics, review...how GT200 remote substance detection is used to secure potentially dangerous insurgent areas in an Asian country." The GT200, according to the website, can also detect crystal methamphetamine, to which – the website claims – an eye-popping 10 percent of Filipinos are addicted. Other claims are that the device can pick up not only explosives but humans, gold, ivory, poison, currency and tobacco from long distances away.

Sniffer dogs – real canines, or K9s, don't work, Electronic K9 said on its website, quoting a trial in New South Wales, Australia, in which sniffer dogs were used to target drug couriers but found illegal substances in only 2 percent of the cars that were pulled over and resulted in only a single conviction.

The website shows what is purported to be a training course in the Philippines and notes that the GT200 "allows for area reduction when conducting large area searches in open country and mountainous terrain, reducing the overall search time and focusing only on those indicated locations. Buried arms caches, narcotics stores and underground tunnel systems can be detected from distances of over 700 meters."

Normal detection devices, however, weigh several hundred pounds and are typically stationary and used in airports. They require that suitcases and other packages possibly containing explosives be passed through or by them. Detecting buried arms caches 700 meters away with a device that appears to resemble a divining rod appears unlikely.

"Perhaps GT200 management would care to demonstrate confidence in their eccentric equipment by personally accompanying Thai military and police patrols," a security analyst told Asia Sentinel. "This would remove any suggestion the Thais were handling the kit incorrectly, while regrettably almost certainly adding to the steadily rising death toll in the south."

Numerous scientific studies have given no indication that the devices can detect explosives or, for that matter, truffles.

According to a November New York Times article, ATSC was peddling the devices in Iraq at prices ranging from US$16,500 to $60,000 each. The Thai Army reportedly has bought 535 GT 200 devices at a cost ranging from Bt900,000 (US$27,250 to Bt1.2 million for add-ons, according to Lt Gen Daopong Rattansuwan, the deputy army chief of staff, before a house committee in October last year. Some 200 of them were purchased to detect explosives in Southern Thailand where a fundamentalist Islamic insurgency has taken many lives. Other agencies using the device, according to the Working Group on Justice and Peace, are the Directorate of Armament under the Air Force, the Naval Ordnance Department, the Navy, the Royal Thai Police, the Central Institution of Forensic Science under the Ministry of Justice, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, and the Provincial Electricity Authority.

"The GT200 is considered an important device by the security forces in their counter-insurgency operations to help them detect bomb-making substances in the southern border provinces of Thailand," the Working Group on Justice and Peace said. "However, on several occasions the device is known to have shown false-negative and false-positive results which then lead to serious damages to the lives and freedoms of the local population as well as security forces."

The GT200, according to the Working Group, "showed false negative results on 6 October 2009 at a bombing near Merlin Hotel, Sungai-Kolok district, Narathiwat province which caused one death and several injuries, as well as on 19 October 2009 during a bombing at the Pimonchai market, Muang district, Yala. During these two incidents, officials were called beforehand to check a car and motorcycle under suspicion. The device was not able to detect any dangerous substances. The bombs exploded a few minutes after the examinations."

Those were just some of the undetected bombs. The device also delivered false positives, resulting in the arrest of people carrying nothing more than a plastic bag with vegetable oil.

The New York Times reported that suicide bombers smuggled two tons of explosives into downtown Baghdad on Oct. 25, killing 155 people and destroying three government ministries, after passing through at least one checkpoint where the ATSC version of the device was being deployed.

The Iraqis, however, believe passionately in them, the New York Times reported.