R v McCormick: The ADE651 on Trial

James McCormick, the British businessman behind ATSC Ltd. and its phony bomb detectors, was finally brought to trial this week in London, facing charges of criminal fraud for his role in selling the ADE651. McCormick is only the first of six individuals who will be tried for their involvement with at least three different companies that have been involved in the distribution of fake bomb detectors. I have been following the activities of these companies for some years now, and although it is is depressing it took so long for these scams to be shut down, this will hopefully be the end of the ADE651, the GT200, the Alpha 6, and the XK9.

…this will hopefully be the end of the ADE651, the GT200, the Alpha 6, and the XK9.

The manufacturers of all four of those devices are among those currently facing charges that have been brought under the Fraud Act (2006). I hope, although I have not been able to confirm, that some of them will also face charges under the UK’s Bribery Act (2010), as these devices appear to have been primarily sold through kickback schemes arranged with foreign officials who were aware of the device’s inability to operate as advertised. Jim McCormick’s devices, the ADE651 and its predecessors, were frequently sold to foreign government agencies in countries that included Iraq, Niger, Georgia, and Bahrain. Other devices, such as Gary Bolton’s GT200, specialized in markets in Thailand, Kenya, and Mexico. At a price tag of up to $60,000 per a device, then, Bolton and McCormick had plenty of overhead to allow them to pay out a bribe to foreign officials, and still make a sizable profit.

The kickbacks do not appear to have been insubstantial, however. In Iraq, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) reported in the January 2011 Report to Congress that, of the $122 million spent by the Iraqi government on the ADE-651 devices, McCormick paid as much as $92 million of that back to Iraqi officials in bribes:

This quarter, Iraq’s IGs continued to examine allegations of corruption within their ministries. SIGIR reported in October that an investigation into the MOI’s purchase of ineffective bomb detectors from a British company was quashed by the invocation of Article 136(b)of the Iraqi Criminal Procedure Code, which allows for a minister to halt judicial inquiries into the activities of personnel working in that ministry. This quarter , the MOI IG announced his intention to conduct a joint investigation with British authorities into the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of these devices. According to the MOI IG, 75% of the value of the contract went to kickbacks received by GOI officials.

The harm caused by the ADE-651 has not been merely financial, however. The ADE-651 continued to be used by Iraqi forces for years after the scam was publicized, and in SIGIR’s October 2010 report, it was noted that “many lives have been lost due to the wands’ utter ineffectiveness.”

In Thailand, where Global Technical’s GT200 and Comstrac’s Alpha 6 are more widely prevalent, deaths have also resulted when the devices failed to detect bombs that later exploded. The devices have also been used to carry out widespread human rights abuses, and hundreds of individuals have been imprisoned based on the devices’ “detection” of their possession of unlawful substances. In Thailand, the fake bomb detectors were slightly cheaper than they were in Iraq, selling at up to $48,000 US dollars a piece — but the price paid for individuals devices varied widely among different Thai government agencies, with some agencies paying up to 150% more than others. (Corruption in Mexico would appear to be cheaper — GT200s bought by Mexican agencies appear to have been sold for around $20,000 each. In contrast, GT200s that were apparently sold to purchasers that were duped and not bribed, including a UN program, were sold for as little as $5,000 a piece.) In Thailand, there were also widely reported “procurement irregularities” associated with the acquisition of the GT200 and Alpha 6, which were bought by Thai military agencies using “special funds” with little to no political oversight.

Leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy in Thailand also noted the ineffectiveness of the GT200 devices, as well as the corruption surrounding their procurement:

Criticism of the GT200 came to a crescendo in Thailand in January when the British government banned export of the device after arresting an executive from the manufacturer of another bomb detection device on fraud charges. [Thai Prime Minister] Abhisit also ordered an investigation into the purchase of the GT200 by various state agencies, following Thai press reports that some agencies had paid more than twice as much for the units as others (note: the first Thai purchases of the GT200 occurred by the Thai Air Force in 2004, when Thaksin Shinawatra was PM). …

Thai human rights activists and their political allies, including Democrat Party deputy leader/MP Kraisak Choonhavan, have been raising the alarm about the GT200 for months, and had engaged us in mid-2009 to see if there were any way we could share US bad experience with such equipment. Kraisak’s primary concern was that innocent civilians were being detained and in some cases charged with assisting insurgent efforts solely based on GT200 readings….

To most people, the GT200 appears to be a glorified dousing rod: it claims to detect explosives at long range, powered by static electricity from the user, without any more complicated sample analysis conducted. The bomb detection squad in Yala told us that they never thought it worked, but they were ordered to use it. The squad passed the GT200 to Emboff to hold; it looked and felt like a toy. In contrast, the GT200’s defenders insist the device was effective when used by properly trained personnel. Failures of the device have been explained away as a byproduct of user error; operators were too tired, sick, fatigued, or otherwise impaired to operate the device properly.

At trial against McCormick, the prosecution provided evidence that McCormick’s original inspiration for the ADE651 was not a bomb detector, but rather a gag gift that purported to locate lost golf balls:

The first device marketed by Mr McCormick, the ADE100, was not the result of extensive research and development but a relabelled golf ball finder on sale in the US for less than $US20, the court heard.

A brochure for the ball finder found at Mr McCormick’s farmhouse home said: “Please don’t ask us for the theory of its operation. We just know it works for most people when used properly. It’s a great novelty item that you should have fun with.”

The businessman bought 300 of the “golf-finders” in 2005 and 2006 and rebadged them as the ADE (advanced detection equipment) 100 with the claim that they could detect drugs and explosives, the court heard.

Mr Whittam said: “In reality, save for a different sticky label, the items are indistinguishable.”

Although the Golfinder was not quite as sophisticated of an enterprise as its British bomb-detector variants were — and lacked the use of technical mumbo-jumbo terms such as “electromagnetic attraction” to explain how the device operated — the essential premise of the business was the same. The devices also looked strikingly similar:



The manufacturer of the original Golfinder had other handy products for sale as well — such as its ground microwaving Microwave Units, which could be used either to defrost cemetery plots for easier digging or to nuke fire ant nests. The abilities of these fantastic machines, it would seem, are only limited by the creativity of their manufacturers.

…proving that McCormick originally bought his ‘bomb detectors’ from a company that sold ‘golf ball detectors’ … demonstrate[s] that McCormick was fully aware that his devices were completely incapable of operating as advertised.

In any event, proving that McCormick originally bought his ‘bomb detectors’ from a company that sold ‘golf ball detectors’ will provide a convenient way for the prosecutor to demonstrate that McCormick was fully aware that his devices were completely incapable of operating as advertised. McCormick’s attorneys might try and raise the defense that McCormick was a fool rather than a charlatan, and that he genuinely bought into the hocus pocus of his own product, but that is going to be a hard sell. His devices were so ridiculous in their design that McCormick, who designed the ADE651 and arranged for its manufacture, could not have thought that they might actually work.

Unfortunately for McCormick, he will not be able to try to spin that to his advantage, by trying to claim that his devices were so absurd that there is no possibility that any of his customers genuinely believed the devices worked. Because McCormick was not charged with committing fraud, but rather with “[m]aking or supplying articles for use in fraud”.

The UK probably brought charges relating to the use of fraudulent devices — rather than fraud through use of misrepresentations — because most of McCormick’s customers seem to have been foreign officials who either received kickbacks from McCormick in exchange for arranging for procurement of the fake bomb detectors, or received some similar compensation for their role in the distribution of the devices. As such, McCormick’s acts of fraud by misrepresentation may have been outside the jurisdiction of the Fraud Act (2006), at Section 15, concerning the Act’s “Commencement and extent”:

(2)Subject to subsection (3), sections 1 to 9 and 11 to 13 extend to England and Wales and Northern Ireland only.

(3)Section 8, so far as it relates to the Armed Forces Act 2001 (c. 19), extends to any place to which that Act extends.

In the UK, then, the crime of fraud for misrepresentation applies only to domestic crimes, and does not have any extraterritorial reach. In contrast, per Section 15(3), in cases of fraud arising from “[p]ossession etc. of articles for use in frauds” or “[m]aking or supplying articles for use in frauds,” criminal liability “extends to any place to which [the Armed Forces Act 2001] extends.” The territorial force of the prohibition on possession or supplying of fraudulent devices would therefore extend to “where any body of the [UK] regular forces is on active service” — i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan.

So to the extent that McCormick’s crimes occurred overseas, his sales to Iraq and Afghanistan were still unlawful under UK law.


Magic Bomb Wands, Corporate Liability, and the Alien Tort Statute

Continuing with the discussion from a previous post, there are currently a number of companies, many of them based in the UK, selling fraudulent bomb and narcotic testing devices to nations such as Iraq, Mexico, and Thailand. These “bomb detectors” are worthless, although the governments who purchase them believe they can do all sorts of miraculous feats, based upon the manufacturers’ claims. As a result of the sniffer devices’ failure to detect the presence of bombs, and the subsequent failure of authorities to identify and prevent the detonation of car bombs and other explosive devices, documented human deaths have resulted.

Potentially, then, fraudulent sniffers such as the ADE651 and the GT200 provide the basis for a civil claim in U.S. courts against the devices’ manufacturers, based upon the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).

Under Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, the ATS provides a jurisdictional basis for causes of action that are “specific, universal, and obligatory.” This means, roughly, violations of international law such as torture, genocide, slavery, crimes against humanity, and other acts of a similar level of “badness” can be targeted (“subject to vigilant gatekeeping,” etc.).

While fraud on its own, with only commercial damages, clearly won’t qualify as the sort of international norm violation that creates ATS jurisdiction, fraud on the scale of the GT200 or ADE651 that leads, directly or indirectly, to human deaths is more in line with previous international law violations that U.S. courts have recognized as valid ATS causes of action. But showing that the sale of fraudulent bomb detectors is a tort in violation of international law isn’t the only obstacle — any would-be ATS plaintiff would also have to contend with the fact that Global Technical and other producers of the dowsing rods are private corporations run by private individuals. Although corporate liability under the ATS been the subject of intense scrutiny over the past few years, and gallons of academic ink have been spilled in debating the validity of corporate responsibility for human rights violations, almost all previous ATS cases have been based upon some sort of joint venture theory, alleging that a corporation bears secondary liability as a result of the corporation’s joint action with or aiding and abetting of a state actor.

Although ATS jurisprudence is currently in the midst of Circuit disarray, if the Supreme Court accepts the cert petition pending before them for Pfizer v. Abdullahi, we should get a much better idea on how the issues in a hypothetical ADE651 case would play out.

The two major legal hurdles in Pfizer v. Abdullahi would be similar to the two predominant issues in an ADE651 case, although the facts between the two differ significantly. First, did the companies that produced the dowsing rods violate an international norm capable of violation by a private party, or, if not, did they act sufficiently in concert with foreign states so as to be considered a “state actor”? Second, is the selling of fraudulent and potentially deadly ‘bomb detectors’ a violation of international law which is actionable under the Alien Tort Statute?

Can selling fraudulent bomb detectors result in private actor liability?

Starting with Kadic, ATS suits against a private actor must show either (1) the tort does not require state action to be a violation of international law, or (2) if state action is required, whether the private actor can be hooked for joint action or aiding and abetting with a state actor. From Unocal, the best precedent we have to date, we have a rough guide that although most violations of international law can only be conducted by states and not individuals, certain “egregious” acts are a violation of CIL even if conducted by a private party. Such acts include slavery, genocide, and war crimes, or, to a limited extent, other bad acts (like rape) that are committed in furtherance of the primary egregious crimes, like genocide.

Whether or not international law violations by private actors will always be limited to that category is uncertain; at any rate, not-completely-ludicrous arguments could be made that the act of knowingly procuring dangerous military equipment for foreign states that results in needless civilian deaths is a violation of international law even absent state complicity.

Even if the above can’t be shown, a joint act or aiding and abetting theory of liability would still be a possible option. From the facts know, there does appear to be substantial evidence that state governments have been acting in concert with dowsing rod suppliers to carry out the scheme. From the original article,

Aqeel al-Turaihi, the inspector general for the Ministry of the Interior, reported that the ministry bought 800 of the devices from a company called ATSC (UK) Ltd. for $32 million in 2008, and an unspecified larger quantity for $53 million. Mr. Turaihi said Iraqi officials paid up to $60,000 apiece, when the wands could be purchased for as little as $18,500. He said he had begun an investigation into the no-bid contracts with ATSC.

Essentially, there is a conspiracy going on here between ATSC, Ltd. and the Iraqi government to sell useless plastic objects at a grossly inflated price. From here, it isn’t too far a leap to reach the conclusion that ATSC knowingly sold dangerously defunct equipment to corrupt government officials, therefore placing civilians in imminent danger due to their faulty belief that they will be able to know when explosives are present.

Recently in The Presbyterian Church of Sudan v. Talisman Energy, Inc., the Second Circuit announced that “the mens rea standard for aiding and abetting liability in Alien Tort Statute actions is purpose rather than knowledge alone.” In contrast to most other ATS cases, showing that an ADE651 defendant possessed the requisite mental state will not be a particularly tricky proposition. I think it’s a more than fair assumption that ATSC and Global Techniques’ owners know damned well that the products they are selling are worthless snake oil, and that it wouldn’t be all that difficult to convince a jury of that fact.

Granted, dowsing rod producers could argue that their “purpose” was simply to sell a product, not commit human rights violations. The Talisman case was dismissed “because plaintiffs presented no evidence that the company acted with the purpose of harming civilians.” However, this is not the case of a corporation engaging in a legitimate business in a region where its partners conduct human rights abuses as a means of carrying out that business enterprise. As with the Zyklon B Case , you can’t argue you aren’t guilty of genocide because you “only intended to sell lice-remover,” when you know damned well your customers ain’t concerned with delousing.

A bigger concern would be that it appears the governments that are buying ADE651 sensors genuinely believe the devices work as advertised. Therefore, the States do not have the necessary intent of purposefully or knowingly endangering their population. So in essence, ATSC is only assisting governments to engage in corrupt acts — they are not aiding and abetting a state’s intentional endangerment of its citizens. At the very least, that would rule out Conspiracy liability, which requires furtherance of a “joint purpose.” However, although it’d take a lot more space to discuss the issue than I have here, I’m going to assume for now that courts are not going to accept the “it’s not a violation of international law because we were tricking states into killing their own citizens” defense. (And anyway, if the Court takes cert on Pfizer, we’ll shortly have an authoritative answer on the question of whether there can be corporate liability when there’s only cursory state involvement.)

Was there a violation of a norm of international law with the requisite specific, universal and obligatory character?

I’ve been jumping the gun a bit by asking whether or not ATSC or Global Techniques can be held up on a theory of primary or secondary liability. That’s all meaningless until it’s also shown that the tort they are alleged to have committed is also a violation of a “norm of international character accepted by the civilized world and defined with a specificity comparable to the features” of such founding-era international crimes of piracy and beating up diplomats for sport.

Courts have held that the specificity and ease of definition of the international norm alleged to be violated are the “meat and potatoes” of ATS claims. Courts don’t really like plaintiffs with harebrained theories alleging that a corporation’s random activities violated a nebulous “right to health” or “right to not have their environment destroyed,” or other similar claims.

In Pfizer, the tort that plaintiffs alleged was committed in violation of international law is “the norm against nonconsensual medical experimentation.” Thanks to Nuremberg and the general legacy of the Holocaust, for the Pfizer plaintiffs, it will be slightly easier to prove that international law prohibits experimenting upon humans without their consent, and possibly that this norm is so firmly entrenched as to be capable of violation by private actors alone. Throw around the word “Mengele” a few times, and heck, you might even cause Scalia to at least pause for a couple seconds before he goes ahead and rejects the claim.

In contrast, there is not really any similar international condemnation of “selling bomb detecting devices that don’t work.” So the norm used as the basis of the tort will necessarily be of a more generalized character, based either in humanitarian or human rights law. Although humanitarian law might offer some possibilities, at least in Iraq or for other cases where the dowsing rods are bought for use in quasi-combat zones, that would still be pretty tricky to pull off. Though not completely analogous, the problems of applying war crimes to private military contractors shows the sort of international legal morass that results in. Or, if you wanted to get even more creative, you might borrow provisions from the Rome Statute, such as Art. 8(2)(b)(xx), which prohibits “employing… materials and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.” Selling and using phony bomb detectors is, if you squint at it funny, employing materials that cause unnecessary suffering to civilians who are killed or maimed in resulting bomb blasts.

As for human rights violations, they are probably just as unsatisfactory. Although a “right to security” appears in seven international and regional human rights treaties, such as Art. 9(1) of the ICCPR, these norms are “universal but not obligatory,” and thus do not provide a firm enough basis for ATS claims.

Still, many ATS claims have been brought alleging violations of international norms far stranger than the ADE651 hypo. Like the suit against UAE officials for abuses of underage camel jockeys, Mother Doe ex rel. R.M. v. Al Maktoum, (S.D. Fla., July 30, 2007)(and no, “underage camel jockeys” is NOT a euphemism), and claims against companies selling bulldozers that were used to mow down Palestinian buildings, Corrie v. Caterpillar, Inc., (9th Cir. 2007). So it wouldn’t be the most objectionable ATS claim ever brought, at least, and if Pfizer does go before the Supreme Court, and an expansive opinion is returned (highly unlikely), then there would be plenty of wiggle room available for an ADE651 case to be brought forward. However, as things currently stand, the odds of such an ATS suit succeeding are not particularly good.