Interpol Finds Its Calling

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Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty

The entrance to the Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France.

In early January, two men checked in at Frankfurt Airport for a flight to New York City. They breezed through security after showing their Canadian passports, then settled in quietly for the eight-hour journey. As the plane lifted off, airline officials e-mailed all of the passengers' passport numbers to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport — a routine measure under U.S. security rules. The alert went out within minutes: the two men were Sri Lankans carrying stolen Canadian passports. When the plane landed in New York, police were waiting there to arrest them.

It had taken a frenzied round of calls between Frankfurt, New York, Washington and Ottawa to nab the passengers before they slipped through J.F.K.'s immigration hall. But the list of stolen passports against which they were checked hailed from another place entirely: a modern, five-story building in Lyons, France, which is the global headquarters of Interpol.

Nearly 85 years after law-enforcement officials from 20 countries formed Interpol, the world's first international police organization, it is scrambling to craft an expanded role for itself in an age of terrorism and global mobility. For decades it was a clubby, European-dominated organization, some of whose agents were seconded to their jobs by law-enforcement services back home as cushy sinecures after years in the police trenches. Staff in Lyons worked regular office hours, took wine-soaked lunches in a city renowned for its excellent cuisine, and hit the nearby ski slopes on winter weekends. Few outside Lyons understood exactly what Interpol did, and its agents were regularly used as fictional mystery men, portrayed with creative inaccuracy in everything from Patricia Cornwell thrillers to The Da Vinci Code. Even now, a Google search for "Interpol" is likely to bring as many hits for a rock band with the same name as for this global band of law enforcers.

But now Interpol is demanding more attention and getting it, thanks to a dramatic shift in its scope engineered by Interpol secretary-general Ronald K. Noble. The former Under Secretary for Enforcement at the U.S. Treasury — where he oversaw the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — Noble arrived in Lyons in 2000 as the first non-European ever to head Interpol. His appointment through a vote by all member countries came after fierce lobbying by both Noble and U.S. officials, who were keen to end Europe's grip on Interpol's leadership. Noble came with one driving mission: to shake the organization out of its somnolence and put it to work on major crimes. By then, 186 countries were members of Interpol, but it still lacked the operational focus to put this vast network to effective use. Noble, now 51, says he was astonished at how marginal Interpol had become in fighting international crime. In the past, he says, "there was a clear policy decision not to get involved in operational matters."

As it happened, Noble's grand ambitions for change were well timed: he began work just 10 months before 9/11, yet he was alerted about the attacks not by U.S. officials but by a frantic phone call from his brother in New Hampshire. "He said: 'Ronnie, did you see what happened in New York?'" Noble recalls. He hadn't. He turned on CNN just in time to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center. "That's when we knew the world had changed for Interpol," he says. "We went 24/7 that day." Noble immediately instituted round-the-clock monitoring of news and e-mails from a command and coordination center two floors below his office — a sharp break from Interpol's previous working hours. That room is now the center of Interpol's nervous system: rotating teams, which include Arabic and African staff, field calls for help and keep in daily contact with Interpol's multiple field offices. One of the room's monitors is tuned continuously to Al Jazeera.

Despite that global scope, Interpol's headquarters — with its sky-lit atrium, potted plants and sweeping views of the Rhône River — still has the air of a mid-sized company rather than a law-enforcement organization. Most of the few hundred people in the building are on first-name terms. The organization squeezes by on a budget of about $65 million a year from member countries' donations — approximately the same amount that the New York Police Department spends in an average week. Interpol's staff in Lyons joke bitterly that the organization costs little more than David Beckham's salary at the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer club. "It's peanuts," says Jean-Michel Louboutin, Interpol's executive director of police services.

To Noble, the meager funding is not just a practical limitation, but a distressing sign of how Western governments undervalue Interpol. "Neither the U.S. nor any other country realizes that this is a billion-dollar-a-year problem, not a $50-million-a-year problem," he says. "They don't understand that Interpol is cost-effective." Noble spends weeks every year at police conferences and government hearings, pressing the point that Interpol's worldwide reach makes it uniquely positioned to collate data on everything from stolen motor-vehicle licenses and lost passports to fingerprints and DNA samples. Yet there is still confusion about Interpol's role. Last year, when Louboutin spent time at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, he says he found that "only a couple of agents knew about Interpol."

Yet through financial necessity and intense discussions with officials across the world, Noble has developed in just four years an ever-expanding array of databases that are among the world's most efficient policing tools. That is a dizzying contrast to the methods of the 1990s, when Interpol's "red notices" — its alerts for wanted fugitives — were sent by regular mail, arriving in some police stations and border posts weeks later. To be sure, there were some famous red-notice successes, including the capture of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal) in 1994 and the American murderer Ira Einhorn in 1997. But on the whole, says Mathieu Deflem, a law-enforcement expert at the University of South Carolina, "Interpol's system was retarded — very, very underdeveloped."

It's much better now. Six years after Interpol began collecting stolen document details, its list contains about 8 million passports and 6 million identity documents — the only such international database in the world. Aside from J.F.K. Airport, Miami and Los Angeles airports have begun to make routine checks of passports against Interpol's list while passengers are still in the air. And the system will roll out at U.S. ports within the next few months, says Interpol's Washington director, Martin Renkiewicz. "We process between 10,000 and 12,000 messages monthly from various officers seeking assistance on investigative matters," says Renkiewicz, who fields requests from around the world. "I doubt anyone does more than that." Interpol started gathering dna data in 2002 from swabs collected at crime scenes internationally. Those files now contain more than 73,000 DNA profiles, and Lyons' databases also store over 68,000 fingerprints of known criminals. And, in a far more controversial move, Interpol lists more than 12,000 people as terror suspects.

The power of this enormous cache of personal data is evident from some of Interpol's recent actions. In January last year, 11 people presented their Cypriot passports at Monterrey airport in Mexico. The numbers that flashed up on Interpol's database revealed that these documents came from a batch of 850 blank passports stolen in Cyprus; it turned out that the men were Iraqi citizens trying to slip into the U.S. Last April, masked gunmen executed a jewelry heist in Dubai. They left behind DNA samples, which matched those that Interpol had in its database for two Serbian armed robbers who had escaped from a Liechtenstein jail in 2006. And in 2005, eight years after Georgian citizen David Kricheli was convicted in his absence of murder in Germany, he was arrested while driving across the U.S. border with Canada, carrying a forged Canadian passport. After he'd been living under a false identity for years, his fingerprints were matched against samples in Interpol's database.

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