Making Interpol Relevant Again

The Wall Street Journal on September 5, 2011 released the following:

“Since 9/11, Leader Has Worked to Make the Organization Central to Member Nations’ Fight Against Terrorism

PARIS—If the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the way the world looks at terrorism, they also served as a wake-up call for Interpol, the world’s largest law-enforcement agency.

“Since that day, the lights have never gone out at Interpol,” Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble says.

A decade ago, Interpol was a slow, sleepy, unresponsive institution headquartered in Lyon, a French city better known for its cuisine than for law enforcement. The agency worked 9-5, five days a week and there was little sense among member countries that they were fighting a common war on terrorism.

Ronald Noble, at a June conference in Singapore, is aiming to create an Interpol Foundation to generate additional funding.

Prior to 9/11, by Mr. Noble’s own admission, Interpol had become “irrelevant”; it wasn’t taken seriously by countries engaged in fighting terrorists. In fact, Mr. Noble is still smarting from the fact that he was alerted to the World Trade Center attacks by a phone call from his brother in the U.S. telling him to switch on his TV, rather than from a law-enforcement agency asking for help.

Under Mr. Noble’s leadership over the past decade all that has changed. The organization is now the indispensable international clearinghouse for exchanging information on terrorists and other international criminals.

Ironically, just prior to 9/11, Mr. Noble had set in motion a major overhaul of the institution to make sure it stayed awake 24/7 to provide immediate assistance, to streamline its international alert system and to allow police forces around the world to be permanently connected to Interpol’s databases.

Contrary to popular belief, Interpol doesn’t have cross-border crime-fighting SWAT teams that can be scrambled into action, though it does send employees to countries that request help, for example in identifying disaster victims. Mr. Noble says he would shoot down any suggestion that Interpol should head up an international antiterrorist squad. “That would be a bad idea. Virtually no country would want that, and they shouldn’t want that,” he says, as sovereign states should be responsible for law enforcement on their own territories.

Interpol serves primarily as the nerve center for member countries’ law-enforcement agencies to exchange information on international crime. Its areas of expertise cover the gamut of criminal activity, including drugs and human trafficking; money laundering, intellectual property offenses, art theft, organized crime and cybercrime. But cracking down on international terrorism is now a major focus.

If Mr. Noble has one burning ambition, it is to plug the holes that allow terrorists and other criminals to travel unhindered using false documents. He’s been working toward that goal over the past decade, but he’s still only halfway there.

“Last year, there were half a billion searches of our database” of stolen or lost travel documents as travelers had their passports scanned by immigration officials, Mr. Noble says. “The same year there were a billion international arrivals. It means there were half a billion times when the passports of international arrivals were not screened against the only database of stolen passports.” Only 153 of Interpol’s 188 member countries are providing details—but not the names—on 23 million cancelled travel documents, and the U.S. only hooked up to the system in 2009. What particularly worries Mr. Noble is that only 44 countries—he won’t say which—regularly check passports against the Interpol database.

“What about the rest? There is no rational reason to explain why every country in the world isn’t connected and doesn’t screen. It certainly is not a reason based on cost,” he says. “Greater priority is currently being given to detecting passengers carrying mineral-water bottles than potential terrorists carrying stolen passports and that shouldn’t be the case.”

The 55-year-old son of a black American GI who met Mr. Noble’s German mother while on active service in Cold War Germany, he learned about hard work as a youngster while helping his father with his cleaning company business in New Jersey.

Ronald Noble attended the prestigious Stanford Law School and, after a stint as a federal prosecutor, taught at New York University School of Law before being nominated by former President Bill Clinton to head the U.S. Treasury’s law-enforcement division. He has led four of the eight main U.S. law-enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service, Customs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

In 2000, Mr. Noble was elected by the representatives of the 188 member countries to head Interpol, billeted in a massive concrete, steel and glass cube overlooking the Rhône river. Last year, he was elected to a third five-year term.

With its annual budget of about €60 million ($85 million)—less than the cost of a small Airbus jet—Interpol is woefully underfunded for the job that it has to do, Mr. Noble feels. “The priority for Interpol in the next five, 10 or 20 years should be to make sure we have a structure and system in place for sharing crime-related information that’s linked to the internet, to make sure we know who’s behind the click of a mouse or the sending or receiving of a message. To achieve that will require a great deal of money and commitment on the part of our member countries,” he says.

How much? “It should be €1 billion a year. You look at the hundreds of billions of dollars governments spend each year on foreign aid and when you think about which element of foreign aid should be of paramount importance, the answer must be the security of countries and businesses and citizens,” he says. A massive increase in Interpol’s resources “will help us prevent organized crime groups from proliferating in the next 10 years like they have in the past 10 years,” he adds.

At a time when cash-strapped governments are tightening their purse strings, Interpol clearly isn’t going to get the funding it would like from governments’ mandatory contributions. So Mr. Noble is aiming to create an Interpol Foundation that would channel a revenue stream from private users, for example from airlines and banks that routinely scan the passports of their passengers or customers. Some say they would gladly pay a few pennies per scan for peace of mind that the documents aren’t listed as stolen or lost. “This could save airlines, banks and hotels hundreds of millions of dollars a year in gained cost efficiencies and reduced risk while generating ten or so millions of dollars a year in revenue that Interpol could use for enhanced border security world-wide,” he says.

Mr. Noble said he has told Interpol’s membership that he won’t seek a fourth term. “I believe the best thing that I can do for the U.S. and all countries is to complete my mandate here at Interpol and then go back to teaching law.” Mr. Noble has a standing tenure for his professorship at NYU, which has allowed him to carry on his other activities while giving him credit for a summer law course that he teaches at the National University of Singapore.

His commitment to Interpol borders on the obsessive. “Over the last 10 years, Interpol is almost all I’ve been,” he says. A self-confessed workaholic, he frequently puts in working days of 14 hours or more and is often on the road, visiting member countries. “I’ve been trained to lead by example,” he says. Indeed, he is so married to his job that he has an apartment adjoining his office. “There is always a country’s head of police or head of terrorism or head of some unit who’s awake, and I can always be reached with my BlackBerry.”

Such a punishing regime comes at a cost, however, in terms of personal relationships and health. “It’s impossible to have a decent family life with hours like that,” he admits. “Now, for the health of my body and mind and a host of other reasons I regularly take time off, which I didn’t do before,” he says, adding that he now meditates and does yoga.

Although being the head of Interpol means that he’s a high-profile target, Mr. Noble takes that in his stride, relying on the countries that he visits to look after his security. But he has grumbled in the past about being harassed at border controls because of his appearance. “I know that I’ve been stopped at borders because I fit various profiles. I look like a person who could be Arabic, if I’m travelling from an Arab country; I could look like a drug-trafficker if I’m coming from a drugtrafficking country, or I could look like an illegal immigrant when I’m coming from a variety of countries,” he said.”

To find additional global criminal news, please read The Global Criminal Defense Daily.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the U.S. law firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN Sanctions Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at or at one of the offices listed above.

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