Interpol head says it can help prevent attacks

Thursday, December 6, 2001

LYON, France -- Interpol. People hear the name and think of something out of a James Bond movie. But few really know what Interpol does.

Since Sept. 11, the international police agency has extended its hours around the clock, formed a task force, issued urgent "red" notices for the arrest of Osama bin Laden and his top deputies, and "blue" notices for information on the suicide hijackers. But critics say the agency is too big a club to likely play a vital role in the fight against terrorism.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press at his Lyon headquarters, Ronald Noble, a former U.S. law enforcement official and the first American to head Interpol, said the agency is underfunded and underutilized. He warned that the world could be missing an opportunity to thwart future terror attacks.

"I can't say if we'd ever have been able to prevent Sept. 11," Noble said. "But I can say this: If we don't put more resources into sharing information on our most dangerous citizens, one day, a terrorist attack will happen that didn't have to."

Reluctant to share

Noble says that as the only international police body, Interpol can be a crucial tool in tracking terrorists who know no borders. But that tool is being wasted, he says, because many nations lack the political will to share important information. Some in the United States and Europe respond that when it comes to terrorism, they don't want to share information with countries like Libya, Iraq and Iran, all of whom are Interpol members.

Interpol has an annual budget of only about $25 million, contributed on a sliding scale by its 179 member nations. Compare that to the annual budget of New York City's police department: about $3 billion.

Of course, the world knows what the NYPD does: It sends police out into the streets to fight crime. What does Interpol actually do?

"People come in here and say, 'gee, this isn't really what I expected,"' says Frank Spicka, head of Interpol's terrorism division, sitting in his tiny office and sipping a can of Perrier.

"They're looking around for the Battlestar Galactica-type command center," he says. "People think we're all trench-coated, clandestine secret agents who travel the world." Actually, Interpol's 350 employees pretty much stay put in their modern, glassy office building that peacefully overlooks the Rhone river.

Spicka, who's on loan to Interpol from the U.S. Secret Service, calls Interpol's function "operational support." Interpol -- the name comes from the original telegraph address -- is essentially a clearinghouse for information on all types of international crime, from terrorism to money laundering to smuggling.

It takes messages from offices throughout the world and passes them to the proper places. It enters information into its large database. And it puts out the red-and-blue wanted notices.

"All our lives changed on Sept. 11," Spicka says. Interpol pledged to immediately beef up its anti-terrorism fight. It set up a 24-hour capacity for the first time in its 78-year history. Now, a police force can send in an urgent request for information about someone at 1 a.m., and get an answer.

Too inclusive?

But those measures don't change the conviction of many that Interpol simply is too inclusive; the only major countries that don't belong are Afghanistan and North Korea.

"The war on terrorism does need to be global -- Sept. 11 shows that," says Dan Goure, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington-based think tank, noting how the Sept. 11 suspects traveled freely across borders. But he adds that Interpol has "no role" because the United States doesn't, and shouldn't, share information with hostile countries.

He says it's particularly a problem because Interpol involves police forces, including those of repressive regimes.

"There's something inherently wrong with a police organization that includes nations where police control the people," said Goure, a former Defense Department security analyst.

Larry Johnson, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism at the State Department, says Interpol just isn't considered a tool to fight terrorism. "I've never been in a meeting where someone said, 'Let's see what Interpol has,"' he said.

A former head of French intelligence during the 1980s, Pierre Lacoste, agrees, saying Interpol is most effective when dealing with ordinary crimes. "Once crimes become nationalistic or political, like terrorism, the cooperation pretty much falls apart," he said.

In a room housing the Telecommunications Supervision department, a manager stands by a map with dots of light marking Interpol bureaus, explaining that 15,000 secure messages are processed daily. A message pops up, alerting police in other countries that a car has been stolen in Botswana.

Interpol's bureaus across the world are set up by national police forces at their own cost. In some areas, an office will have no fax machine or Internet access. Improving the technology in these places is a major goal, Noble says.

Noble, a New Yorker and former law professor, served in the Treasury and Justice departments and was a leading candidate to replace Louis Freeh as head of the FBI.

He expresses frustration with wealthier countries' reluctance to share information with Interpol, noting that they can decide which countries the information should go to.

And he notes that Washington and European nations can benefit greatly from information from countries like Libya -- which, he said, was the first country to request an Interpol "red" notice on bin Laden, years ago.

"If Libya wants a man for criminal activity, and that man is headed for the United States," Noble asks, "don't we want to know this before the man gets into the country?"

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