A mission to modernize Interpol


WASHINGTON -- In 1982, when Ronald K. Noble graduated from Stanford Law School, his ambition was to "join the largest law firm I could and make the most money I could." Instead, he went into public service and teaching. Now he has accepted a position that will never yield wealth, but will not fall short on challenges.

As the newly named secretary-general of the international law-enforcement agency Interpol, Noble, 42, until recently a New York University Law School professor, will be charged with breathing new life into an organization that has sometimes fallen behind the times in confronting global crime.

Even before moving into his office at Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, Noble has decided things have to change -- including the hours Interpol follows. He is appalled at the agency's 9-to-5, five-days-a-week schedule. The leisurely pace may have sufficed for the French civil service, on which Interpol was modeled, but Noble says more intensity is required: International crime is increasing sharply as the economy goes global. One of his first goals after taking over next year, Noble says, is to shift to round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week operation.

This would be welcomed by many experts who regard Interpol, with its global communications system and network of ties to law-enforcement agencies around the world, as vital to combating transnational crime. Fraud artists, money launderers, computer crooks, terrorists, war criminals and pedophiles have begun operating on a scale that local law-enforcement agencies cannot cope with alone.

Noble expects to persuade Interpol's 177 member countries, especially the United States, to pay larger fees and sharply increase Interpol's budget. He also envisions updating computer technology and giving priority to protecting private property.

Noble is the first non-European and first non-Caucasian to head the 75-year-old International Criminal Police Organization. He was born in Fort Dix, N.J. His mother was German; his father was a black master sergeant in the Army.

He speaks German and French, but he plans to learn Spanish, because it, too, is often used at Interpol headquarters.

These are some of his responses to questions during an interview.

Would the fact that you'll be Interpol's first non-European, non-Caucasian secretary-general be an advantage in dealing with so many countries that are non-Caucasian and have never had anybody other than a Caucasian as head of Interpol?

Yes. The bottom line is, as much as I would like people to look at me and judge me based on my work performance and character, people look at me and, based on what they see, they either feel more comfortable or less comfortable with me. It's fair to say that in a lot of the nonwhite countries, when they see me coming in they might feel comfortable because they can identify with me.

Interpol's Washington office handles up to 10,000 messages a month, seeking and providing information the FBI considers crucial to criminal investigations. Yet, FBI officials say many law-enforcement officials in this country don't know anything about Interpol. How are you going to address that problem?

I see that as one of the most serious problems confronting Interpol. If Interpol is known to people, it's usually based on their recollection of an old TV series, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." They don't realize there's basic law-enforcement support that Interpol can give state and local law-enforcement officers, as well as federal.

The United States and every country have an interest in knowing whether there's a fugitive lurking in their midst. Right now, if a police officer stops a person for a traffic violation and does a computer check of that person's background, that computer check doesn't kick into every police agency's database. But it ought to. We've got to set up the system where that happens.

Do you consider combating terrorism one of Interpol's major missions?

Yes. I was at Interpol headquarters when the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya occurred. And in my view, Interpol was not staffed or funded to give Tanzania and Kenya, as well as the U.S. government, the kind of support they needed.

I believe Interpol has to receive the funding and resources so that when terrorist events of international importance occur, there is a hub that governments can contact to find out what is going on, is there any likelihood that this is going to spread into other areas, what resources are available, what resources are needed.

Interpol's constitution bans it from intervening in any case of a political, military or religious nature. Doesn't that make it difficult sometimes in targeting terrorism?

Yes, it does make it difficult. But over the last 30 years, the world's experience was between a political act as part of an internal dispute and a pure criminal terrorist act. The distinction between those two is getting easier and easier to see.

How seriously do you view fighting illegal drugs as part of Interpol's mission?

Fighting drug trafficking has been a priority and will continue to be a priority. Many conferences are organized around it. Subdirectorates are created in Interpol for it. There are mechanisms in place to try to make it easier for police officers throughout the world to share information about emerging trends in drug trafficking.

What are other major crimes requiring major emphasis by Interpol?

Organized crime is a very, very important type of activity. Also counterfeiting.

With the Internet and with communication being much more accessible to people and with people moving from country to country, Interpol has to position itself to protect the property rights of citizens throughout the world, by investigating counterfeiting, investigating fraud cases.

One of the big areas of fraud involves Hollywood films.

The theft of intellectual property, the counterfeiting of films and music, CDs, is an extraordinary area that is right for Interpol to assist not only in investigating and prosecuting the people who do this, but in sharing information about how the counterfeiting occurs, what counterfeiting networks are used and getting that information out on the Internet to police agencies.

How about computer hacking?

If you asked people 100 years ago what was their image of a typical law-enforcement officer, they probably would say a brawny man, armed sometimes or most of the time. We're going to have to really rethink that.

First, we have many more women than we ever had before engaged in law enforcement. But more important than the gender issue is the model of what constitutes a good law-enforcement officer. Pretty soon, I think, we will say we want someone who is as adept in stopping computer-related crime as in stopping violent crime. Someone who's as comfortable at a PC terminal as at a firing range. The "nerd" -- some say it disparagingly -- might be the person who would help save a business or a government from computer-related fraud.

The Interpol budget is $30 million. What budget should it have?

I'd say it's a $30 million budget doing work that ought to be valued about $30 billion.

I know that we can't service the world's police organizations and countries on a $30 million budget and the staff we have, so there are two options. One is to build up Interpol headquarters, or set up regional components that are able to supplement the work of Interpol. I will propose that the world's governments and countries move under either model -- a model of regionalization where, at 9 o'clock at night, instead of calling France if you're in Asia, maybe you will call the Asian Interpol bureau.

Pub Date: 10/07/99

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