When some guy loses his life savings playing a carnival game, you just say, “Hunh?” When a government ministry lays down millions to buy pixie dust, you have to say “Wow!”
If you’re going to have security theater, you need props. Allow me to introduce Mr. James McCormick, sentenced yesterday in the UK to three ten-year jail terms (to be served concurrently, eligible for parole in five), for selling magic wands.
The ADE 651 is the device that made Mr. McCormick’s fortune. ADE stands for Advanced Detection Equipment. It’s the fourth device in the series, following the ADE 100, the ADE 101, and the ADE 650.
Let’s back up a bit. Allow me to introduce the Gopher. This is a gag golf-ball detector, sold in joke-and-party stores in the US for under twenty bucks. What it is, is a plastic handle with a metal rod attached to the front on a hinge so it can swing left and right. When your golf ball goes into the rough and you can’t locate it, pull out your handy Gopher and the rod will swing to indicate which way it lies!
This works by the same principle that moves the planchette on a Ouija board. Tiny involuntary muscle movements make your hand tremble, causing the rod to swing. As to how well it works, the words “random chance” should appear in your mind.
The War On Terror brought a huge market for bomb-detection technology. McCormick saw his chance, bought up a bunch of Gophers, peeled off the labels and replaced them with labels of his own. He repackaged them, and sold them for $6,000 and up (up to $30,000-$60,000 each) to security forces in twenty different countries. It was proved in open court that mold-marks and imperfections in the Gopher handles were identical with the mold-marks and imperfections in the handles of the ADE 100.
Over the ten years that McCormick sold the things he made improvements. To make the device seem more trustworthy he made the handle heavier. Later versions came in hard-sided carrying cases with pre-cut foam packing. The device now had two parts; the handle with the swinging rod attached by a cable to a belt pouch where the detector box was located. That box had a slot into which you’d put a plastic card identifying what it was you were looking for. The box, though, contained no components. The cards, colorfully printed on one side and with an RFID pasted to the other, were just pieces of plastic.
As to how Mr. McCormick sold the things: A combination of high-pressure sales tactics and sleight-of-hand. He claimed that his detector could find any explosives within a kilometer; through lead; through ten feet of earth or twenty feet of water; or from an airplane. The detectors could also supposedly find bank notes, ivory, blood, and a wide variety of drugs. He used fancy words like electrostatic ion attraction and electrochemical (Thermo-Redox) detection to describe how they supposedly worked.
The ADE didn’t have any apparent power source. McCormick explained this by saying it was powered by the static electricity generated by the operator.
He also used old-fashioned bribery. He supposedly sold $122 million worth of the devices to the Iraqi government, but at the cost of $65 million in bribes, leaving him with just $57 million in profit (from which he’d have to subtract the manufacturing cost of up to $60 each).
McCormick bought a house and a yacht. Not just a house, an $8 million house in Bath, England. And a vacation home in Florida. And another in Cyprus. That’s a pretty nice-looking yacht, too.
Let us suppose that you are trying to sell the Card Color Detector 5000. The most advanced Card Color Detector in the world, operating by Heisenbergian Macro-Wave Format Vibration. Here’s how you make one: Take a length of thread. Tie on a finger ring. There you go! Now explain that the CCD 5000 will swing in a straight line over black cards, and in a circle over red cards. To prove it, lay down a series of playing cards face down. Hold the CCD 5000 above each in turn. It works every time! (It’s lots easier for you to do this demonstration if you use marked cards.) Now allow the person to whom you’re selling it to try. Each time it correctly determines the color, say, “See how well it works!” Each time it doesn’t, say, “You weren’t relaxed enough.” Put it in a nice box, include a four-color glossy brochure, and slap a five-figure price tag on it. Remember: A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demonstration.
The “not relaxed enough” line was the actual excuse for why the thing didn’t always function: The operator wasn’t relaxed. Nothing says “relaxed” like “trying to detect terrorist bombs at a police checkpoint in Pakistan.”
As Judge Richard Hone at the Old Bailey said:
“The jury found that you knew the devices did not work, yet the soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere believed in them, in part due to your powers of salesmanship and in part the extravagant and fraudulent claims made in your promotional material.
“After a six-week trial, I am wholly satisfied that your fraudulent conduct in selling so many useless devices for simply enormous profit promoted a false sense of security and in all probability materially contributed to causing death and injury to innocent individuals.”
Worried that you won’t be able to detect explosives now? You can smile! The GT200, manufactured by a different
conman company is still on sale! They’re being used right now today in Mexico (among many other countries) to find weapons and drug caches.