The Department of Magical Thinking

The Pentagon's funding of charlatans has a long and storied history... and future

3 min read
The Department of Magical Thinking

The cutting edge in 21st century defense technology

I love sci-fi technology as much as (or more than) the next guy, but the military obsession with high tech panaceas might be doing more harm than good. There's always been a pipeline from charlatans to the defense money train, and the worst chicanery usually happens when thorny, headache-inducing policy problem are addressed with spiffy future tech.

The BBC reported on the latest head-desker earlier this week: The ADE-651 "magic wand" bomb detector, which was supposed to detect TNT, among other things, doesn't work. Jim McCormick, the director of British firm ATSC, promised that his wand could identify bombs with its "special" electronic card (which his company also makes).

In tests undertaken by BBC Newsnight, the device turned out to contain nothing but the sort of anti-shoplifting store merchandise tag that makes the door beep if the saleslady forgot to cut the tag off your new pants. This would be funny had the uselessness of the device in question not led to "hundreds" of alleged deaths caused by faulty devices failing to predict suicide truck bombs.

Never mind that the thing looks like a staple gun attached to an old TV antenna. In a previous interview with BBC News, McCormick asserted that his device operates on the principle of dowsing. You know, finding water with a divining rod. A psychic stick. Gizmodo reported on the questionable science behind this wacky device back in November.

But hey, snake oil salesmen with ridiculous magical devices have pilfered money from defense coffers since time immemorial.

The latest variation is the “machine that can read your thoughts at airport security lines." The US Department of Homeland Security is spending $7 million a year trying to develop technology that can find the bad guys by reading their minds. Here's the basic idea: as you wait in line at the airport checkpoint, thermal cameras lots of sensors will read your body temperature, your heart rate and respiration, your skin's moistness, and the look in your eyes. And so, as one commenter astutely pointed out, if you take a Xanax to conceal the explosive load in your pants, you’ll be fine. But if you have a fear of flying, it’s off to Gitmo.

At least DHS is using psychobabble, not actual magic--or outright fraud. Back in 2003, another of these magical devices led to one of the first of a seven-year oscillation of yellow-orange threat level flip-flops. (An absurdity which culminated, this past December, in an inevitable "orange to orange, only more so" status adjustment following the underwear bomber's fail-o-rama.)

The 2003 yellow-to-orange bump was caused by a CIA contractor's claim to have found hidden terrorist strike information in Al Jazeera footage. [Caveat lector: This excellent and thoroughly researched article appears in Playboy, which means that even thought the text is safe for work, the ads probably aren’t. I suggest turning off images in your browser before you visit.]

Brief summary: Self-proclaimed "scientist" Dennis Montgomery convinced the Bush White House, the CIA, and the Air Force that he could predict terrorist attacks. Specifically, he asserted that the Al Jazeera TV network was transmitting data to Al Qaeda sleepers, consisting of "latitudes and longitudes and flight numbers." Hundreds of canceled flights and holiday disruptions later, it turned out that the government contracts were based on faked demonstrations. Because his technology did not actually work, Montgomery was staging rigged demonstrations, faking the results of his "special" image processing algorithm by having someone hide behind a wall and press a button, reminiscent of the Great and Terrible Oz.

Meanwhile, "Magic Wand" McCormick has been arrested, and Britain has banned his nefarious cards from being exported. But even after all that, Iraq's security forces insist that actually, the guy just didn't want to explain the magic to a bunch of Americans. And they totally work, sure, 100 percent of the time. And they're worth every penny of the US $85 million they've cost Iraq.


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