A mission to modernize Interpol


October 07, 1999|By Jack Nelson | Jack Nelson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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?

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