The White House may be yawning at the uproar over President Obama’s executive order extending diplomatic privileges to the International Criminal Police Organization, better known as Interpol, but Ronald Noble is taking it seriously.
Which is an encouraging sign, because Noble is Interpol’s Secretary General. Appointed in 2000, the former federal prosecutor and law professor is the first American to head the organization. He works out of its offices in Lyon, France, which means it was after midnight his time when he spoke recently to HUMAN EVENTS.
Credit Noble with taking the outcry seriously. Unlike the Obama administration, which told the New York Times that the executive order wasn’t “newsworthy,” Noble is moving to stem rapidly spreading concerns over the spectre of an international police force operating with diplomatic immunity in the United States.
“The executive order gives Interpol no law-enforcement or investigative powers to engage in activities on U.S. soil,” said Noble, including “searches, seizures or arrests in the U.S.”
The reason Noble finds himself doing damage control from across the Atlantic lies with the White House. In December, President Obama amended several sections of a 1983 executive order signed by President Reagan recognizing Interpol as an international agency.
The Reagan order withheld certain rights and privileges ordinarily conferred under the International Organizations Immunities Act. Under the Obama revisions, however, Interpol gains full diplomatic-immunity status, including immunity from Freedom of Information Act requests, certain taxes and customs charges, and the search and seizure of its files.
The order, signed without fanfare or explanation shortly before Christmas, slid under the radar for several days before being outed by conservative commentators and bloggers, who quickly sounded the alarm over Interpol’s enhanced status.
Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor now with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argued that that executive order “makes an international police force immune from the restraints of American law.”
“This international police force (whose U.S. headquarters is in the Justice Department in Washington) will be unrestrained by the U.S. Constitution and American law while it operates in the United States and affects both Americans and American interests outside the United States,” said McCarthy on National Review Online.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said during an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that the directive removes “all American constraints” from Interpol.
That’s not the case, said Mr. Noble. As proof of Interpol’s good intentions, he pointed out that Interpol had the option starting in 1983 with submitting names of employees to be considered for full diplomatic immunity. In 27 years, the agency has never submitted a single name.
“Why not? It’s because we don’t conduct investigations, so my employees don’t need these immunities,” said Noble. “If an Interpol employee gets a ticket, or drives drunk, or steals something, the obvious position is that Interpol believes they should be prosecuted.”
RedState.com blogger Erick Erickson raised the spectre of Americans being hauled by Interpol before the International Criminal Court, which the president has expressed interest in joining. Such Americans would likely include “the lawyers, CIA operates and soldiers” involved in conducting the War on Terror.
Meanwhile, the Washington Examiner said in an editorial that the order “may be the most destructive blow ever struck against constitutional civil liberties. No wonder the White House has said as little as possible about it.”
Still, conservative opinion is mixed. Former Assistant Attorney General Thomas Sansonetti, a prominent Wyoming Republican, said it would be illegal for the president to bestow Interpol with law-enforcement powers.
“Obviously for any outside body to have police authority in the U.S., that would have to be granted by Congress,” said Mr. Sansonetti.
David Kopel, the research director of the Independence Institute who’s also a lawyer and gun-rights advocate, said the outcry may have more to do with the context than the content.
“By putting this out on Christmas Eve, it sure looks like the White House had something to hide,” said Kopel. “They could have done with a little more explanation to some people. And unlike Ronald Reagan, Obama has no credibility as someone who’s protective of American sovereignty.”
Although Kopel said he’s opposed to diplomatic immunity in principle, he’s no more opposed to granting it to Interpol than to any other organization. He pointed out that the order gives Interpol the same status as 75 other international groups now operating in the United States, including the International Red Cross, the World Trade Organization and the International Cotton Advisory Committee.
He also vouched for Noble’s integrity; the two co-taught at class on gun rights at New York University in the 1980s. “I trust Ron not to break down people’s doors,” he said.
Convincing others of that will be trickier, thanks in part to Interpol’s popular image as an undercover crime-fighting operation. Noble insisted the real Interpol bears little resemblance to the one depicted in the media. For one, he said, Interpol has no authority to flout the laws of other countries. For another, its agents don’t carry firearms.
“We don’t have any armed agents. We don’t have police officers who go into other countries and make arrests,” said Noble. “It’s not like the movies. It’s not like James Bond, not like ‘The International’.”
Interpol’s charge is to serve as a communications center and clearinghouse for law enforcement in its 188 member countries. The agency keeps records on terrorists, drug traffickers and other criminals, operates a lost-and-stolen passport service, and aids police in tracking down fugitives who may have crossed borders by sending alerts to other countries.
Once a fugitive is discovered, any arrests are made by local law enforcement, not Interpol agents. Instead of a Glock and a license to kill, he said, the average agent carries nothing more dangerous than a Blackberry. Think Chloe, not Jack.
“An Interpol agent would be able to speak three languages and tell you about the laws in 14 different countries,” said Noble.
Interpol’s U.S. presence isn’t extensive: Its office in New York has only five employees. The agency also operates out of the Justice Department through the Interpol-U.S. National Central Bureau, but Noble said the executive order would not apply there.
Why does Interpol suddenly need diplomatic immunity? Noble explained that when President Reagan signed the original order, the organization didn’t have a permanent U.S. staff or office. That changed in 2004 with the opening of the Office of the Interpol Special Representative to the United Nations.
The revisions bring Interpol’s U.S. office in line with its other seven international offices, all of which already enjoy full diplomatic immunity.
“It’s international custom that international organization are exempt from FOIA,” said Noble. “We’re no different than any other international organization.”
Except, of course, that none of the other organizations is involved with law enforcement. Still, Noble said he hoped critics would focus on Interpol’s real work in identifying terrorists, tracking down sex offenders and aiding local police, instead of speculating on what-if scenarios.
“I understand how Americans feel about their sovereignty, their rights and their freedoms,” said Noble, “and I respect that completely.”