BANGKOK — Thailand's security forces bought more than 1,500 fake "bomb detectors" for $30 million, investigators say, and the army deploys them against Islamist rebels despite a U.S. Embassy warning that the devices are as useless as "a toy."
The Department of Special Investigation announced this month that the manufacturers and distributors of the devices fraudulently sold them to Thailand's military, narcotics bureau, airports and other security agencies. The DSI has sent the case to the National Anti-Corruption Commission for further investigation.
About a dozen government agencies purchased 1,576 of the handheld units, called GT200 and Alpha 6.
Despite the investigation and the U.S. Embassy warning, Thailand's top defense officials insist the devices work.
"Do not say the GT200 used as a bomb detector in the far south does not work," Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat said last week, referring to the area of Thailand where 40,000 troops are fighting Muslim separatists. "It has often detected explosives."
More than 5,000 people have died in the conflict since 2004, and many were killed by bombs.
In 2006, the air force became the first Thai government department to buy the units. Mr. Sukumpol was the air force chief of staff at the time.
The army then purchased more than 750 GT200s, reportedly endorsed by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is now army chief.
"I have seen the effectiveness of GT200 detectors in finding explosives," the military's Supreme Commander Thanasak Patimapakorn said last week.
However, some observers believe the military simply refuses to admit it made a mistake.
"For the military to admit that they were duped into buying useless bomb detectors may invite unwanted investigation into suspected corruption," the Bangkok Post's former editor Veera Prateepchaikul wrote this month.
There is no public evidence of wrongdoing by military officials linked to the contracts.
Since 2007, the Border Patrol Police Bureau, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, the Justice Ministry's Institute of Forensic Science, the Customs Department and other agencies purchased hundreds more of the devices.
The Defense Ministry's Royal Aide-de-Camp Department — responsible for the security of Thailand's royal family — also bought the equipment.
The Department of Special Investigation said a British company, ComsTrac Ltd., produced and sold GT200s and Alpha 6s to Thailand. The devices include a small plastic box topped with a plastic cylinder, which can be gripped by hand.
However, British explosives specialist Sidney Alford examined one and discovered it was useless.
"That is an empty plastic case," he told the BBC in 2010 after opening a GT200.
Mr. Alford added that a so-called "detection card," which is supposed to be inserted into the device to identify explosives or drugs, is nothing more than a useless piece of paper.
The device also contains a collapsible, radio-style metal antenna that sticks out of the cylinder and swivels, supposedly to detect something. During security checks, nervous troops are ordered to slowly wave the device, making its antenna sway.
The army is still using most of its 750 GT200s in three Muslim-majority southern provinces where ethnic Malay-Thai Islamist guerrillas are fighting to secede from Thailand, which is 95 percent Buddhist.
In 2010, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said his government banned further purchases of the devices but allowed them to be used by the agencies that already had them — even after discovering they were basically useless.
"We have done a double-blind test where the equipment was only successful in discovering [explosives] in 20 percent of the cases, when just a random choice would give you 25 percent," he said.
In February 2010, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok alerted the U.S. National Security Council, Defense Intelligence Agency, CIA and the Pentagon about Thailand's use of the GT200.
A "confidential" report, released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, said the GT200 "looked and felt like a toy."
The report said bomb squads in southern Thailand told embassy officials that "they never thought it worked, but they were ordered to use it."
"To most people, the GT200 appears to be a glorified dowsing rod," the embassy said.