ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Our next story illustrates a variation on an old theme. There's a military procurement officer born every minute. In the current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Adam Higginbotham has an article with the stunning title, "The $38 Million Bomb-Detection Golf Ball Finders." It's about a man named James McCormick, a Briton who managed to make a very good living selling devices that he claimed detected bombs. He sold them in many countries, most notably Iraq, where concealed bombs, so-called improvised explosive devices were epidemic.
Adam Higgenbotham joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.
ADAM HIGGENBOTHAM: Hello.
SIEGEL: As you report, James McCormick was ultimately convicted by a British court for selling devices like the ADE651. What was or is the ADE651?
HIGGENBOTHAM: Well, it was essentially a touted up dousing rod. A plastic pistol grip with a plastic hinge in it on which was mounted what looked a lot like a telescopic car antenna.
SIEGEL: And it actually was adapted from a golf ball retriever.
HIGGENBOTHAM: It was. The golf ball retriever was conceived by a guy named Wade Cuatelbam in the mid-'90s in South Carolina. And he maintained that after his initial work building the device to detect golf balls, he then developed it further so that it could be used to find explosives, narcotics, weapons and ultimately missing persons.
SIEGEL: How did it do this? What was the science behind it?
HIGGENBOTHAM: Well, would you like me to tell you what they said or what the real science is?
SIEGEL: What's the real science behind it?
HIGGENBOTHAM: There is no science.
SIEGEL: No science behind it at all.
HIGGENBOTHAM: It's a dousing rod. It waggles about from side to side on the hinge, as you would expect a car aerial attached to a plastic hinge to do. They may, themselves, have for a period at the beginning thought that it really genuinely did work because of a psychological phenomenon called the Ideomotor effect, which is the same principle that convinces people that ouija boards work, apparently, which is that in response to suggestion or expectation, you can make tiny muscular movements entirely involuntary that can cause something that's free swinging or moving to move from side to side in the direction of something that if you were using a divining rod you're looking for.
SIEGEL: How much did it cost him to make one of these and how much did he sell them for?
HIGGENBOTHAM: Well, the best example is that he bought, at one point, 300 of the remains of stock of the original golf ball finders. And then he rebadged the devices, because originally they said gofer golf ball finder, with the logo of his company. And then the devices, which he paid around $19 for mail order, he would sell for $3,000 each.
SIEGEL: Now I gather in the trial of McCormick, the challenge to prosecutors - this was in Britain - was that to convict him of fraud you had to show not just that this device didn't do anything but that they knew it didn't do anything and were selling it despite that fact.
HIGGENBOTHAM: That's right. Because the original manufacturers of the similar device that this all started with in the mid-'90s ended up begin acquitted because they were brought to trial by the Department of Justice in 1996 and subjected to a jury trial in which the prosecution fielded a wide array of expert witnesses that showed that this was nonscientific junk. But the jury, apparently, were not convinced that the guys who were selling these things really knew that however ridiculous it seemed, what they were selling did not work.
SIEGEL: Can someone establish with any certainty that bombs were detonated and people were killed or injured because they slipped through checkpoints in Iraq that were manned by people wielding what amounted to novelty golf ball finders with pointless cards inserted into them?
HIGGENBOTHAM: What the British police told me was that they couldn't show to the standards of a British court that a specific bomb had passed through a specific checkpoint where only these devices were being used to detect explosives and that bomb had then gone on to kill the specific individuals. But the fact is that these devices were pretty much the only bomb-detecting equipment being used on more than 1,400 checkpoints throughout Baghdad for several years, during which time there's been an epidemic of massive car bombs that have killed hundreds of people.
SIEGEL: Adam Higginbotham, a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek, has written about this in the article "The $38 Million Bomb-Detection Golf Ball Finders." Thanks for talking with us today.
HIGGENBOTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.