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The World's Top Cop

The first American to lead Interpol is at the center of the war on terrorism

By Maggie Paine

Last month, Ronald K. Noble '79 traveled from his office in Lyons, France, to New York, Prague, Tunis and Washington. This month his schedule calls for trips to Brussels, Edinburgh, Rome, Paris and Sun City, South Africa. At a time of heightened airport security, his itinerary seems suspicious, and in spite of his well-tailored suit and perfect English, he suspects that he does, too. "Customs officials think I look like a terrorist," he says.

Far from being a terrorist, Noble is the secretary general of Interpol, an international police agency dedicated to combating terrorism and international crime of all kinds. A few years ago, as the U.S. Treasury Department's first under secretary for enforcement, he was actually in charge of the Customs Service, not to mention the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and other federal agencies with a total of 35,000 employees. He assumed command of Interpol in November 2000, the first non-European and the first non-Caucasian to serve as secretary general.

With 179 member countries on five continents, Interpol is larger than any other international organization except the United Nations. Its function is to collect, analyze and circulate intelligence that could be useful in preventing or prosecuting international crimes. And in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it is at the center of the suddenly intensified war on terrorism.

It was neither luck nor accident that put Noble at the head of Interpol at such a critical time. He campaigned hard for the job, and he had the unanimous support of U.S. law enforcement officials, including then-Attorney General Janet Reno. New York City police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, an Interpol executive committee member, was so determined to see Noble elected that he flew to Lyons to vote for him only three weeks after undergoing open heart surgery. Noble was no stranger to Interpol. During his years at the Treasury Department, he had been a U.S. delegate to Interpol's General Assembly, and he had served on the executive committee. He saw that crime and terror networks were taking advantage of globalization and modern technology to extend their reach around the world. The demands on Interpol were growing and changing, and he wanted to make sure the organization would be up to the challenge.

Interpol's headquarters is set apart from the rest of Lyons, a city of 453,000. It sits on a narrow strip of land between the wide, green Rhone River and a large man-made lake in the Parc de la Tete d'Or. Its nearest neighbors, located some distance away on the same green island, are a museum of contemporary art, a Hilton Hotel and a conference center. Interpol dominates its site, a cube of glass panes and concrete columns encircled by a reflecting pool.

The building's floorplan is a hollow square, with four wings surrounding a central courtyard, roofed by a glass pyramid six stories above the ground. Some 350 people from 55 nations work in the building, including 120 police officers on temporary assignment from member countries.

Interpol has no police power of its own; it cannot make arrests. It works through a national central bureau in each member country, which is staffed by that country's own police. This bureau is the single point of contact for foreign police who require assistance with investigations. The U.S., for example, has thousands of law-enforcement agencies at the national, state and local levels, but the national central bureau in Washington can put a foreign police investigator in touch with any of them.

The Interpol building could be a corporate headquarters at first glance, but razor wire tops the green-metal fence that circles the perimeter. French gendarmes guard the entrance to the site. To enter, you must walk past the guards and announce yourself via an intercom at the front gate. After you have been buzzed through the gate, you proceed to a one-story entry area, separate from the main building. A wide swathe of bulletproof glass separates you from Interpol security officials, who slide out a drawer for your passport. You put anything you are carrying on a conveyor belt to be X-rayed, then step up to a floor-to-ceiling glass sphere emblazoned with the Interpol logo. The sphere swings open, and you step inside a transparent tube, where you are scanned by sensors. Then the far side of the tube opens and you are greeted by an Interpol official, who uses her badge to admit you into the main building. She leads you down a hallway to the light-filled atrium, lush with palms, ivy, ferns and other plants.

A badge is required to move between floors, using an elevator that looks like a glass cylinder rising from the atrium. Posters line the walls of the winding interior corridors--notices with the Interpol seal on a colored square in the right-hand corner. Some, called red notices, carry the photographs, fingerprints and descriptions of some of the world's most dangerous criminals and terrorists, including members of the Al Qaeda network.

The notice system is one of Interpol's primary tools in combating crime. Red notices are, in effect, international arrest warrants, honored by 135 countries (but not by the U.S.); blue notices trace offenders and locate witnesses; green notices provide warnings and intelligence about criminal activities and methods; yellow notices advertise missing persons; and black notices are used to identify bodies. The number of notices issued by Interpol has nearly doubled over the last five years. Some 1,740 were issued in 2001 (including 55 red notices for people suspected of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks) and 1,400 people were arrested or located as a result.

It used to take as long as three months for Interpol to distribute a notice. In January, Noble implemented a new procedure that makes it possible to post high-priority notices to member bureaus in 72 hours.

Streamlining the notice procedure was not the only change introduced by Noble. When he took office, Interpol was operating on a 9-to-5, five-days-a-week schedule. He immediately began preparations to keep the agency open around the clock, 365 days a year. The new schedule was set to go into effect on Sept. 17 last year. When the planes smashed into the World Trade Center on the 11th, Noble put it into effect immediately. "We will never again turn out the lights and close the doors at Interpol headquarters," he says. "The world changed on 11 September, and so did Interpol."

Interpol's systematic involvement in global antiterrorist activities dates from 1985, when the General Assembly called for the creation of a specialized division to "coordinate and enhance cooperation in combating international terrorism." Since then, the Anti-Terrorism Branch has been responsible for dealing with matters relating to terrorism, firearms and explosives, attacks and threats against civil aviation, maritime piracy and weapons of mass destruction.

The Anti-Terrorism Branch has concentrated its efforts in three areas: gathering and analyzing intelligence about terrorist activities, eliminating illegal trafficking in weapons and shutting down international financial systems that support terrorism. Noble added another priority: creating a global database of travel documents so any nation's immigration officials can instantly determine if passports from other countries are valid. "If we don't do the little things now, like having countries share data about fraudulent identity documents, we're going to continue to have a terrorist problem," he says.

Two new crime-fighting tools will be added to Interpol's arsenal this year. The first, developed in cooperation with the U.S. Treasury Department, is a database of people and organizations suspected of financing terrorist activities. That is expected to be up and running in February. The second tool is a machine that can check a suspect's fingerprints against millions of others stored in police databases in a matter of minutes. Interpol is now working with the FBI, Scotland Yard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to test it at border crossings. Canadian police say they will be using this technology within a couple of months to screen undocumented refugees coming into Canadian airports.

But Interpol's most important anti-terrorism weapon is its global intelligence network, made up of tens of thousands of police in all of the member countries. While police in some other countries might not be as sophisticated as America's, they have a vital role to play in anti-terrorist efforts, Noble says. "The best information often comes from neighbors who see unusual things near their homes or businesses, and this information is ordinarily given to local police officers, who then are in position to relay the information to national or international po lice. It's a chain reaction that begins at the local level."

In fact, Noble believes that if the United States and other wealthy nations want to wage an effective war on terrorism, they need to invest in law enforcement agencies in poorer countries. "Investing in the world's police forces and Interpol is the only way to ensure that valuable intelligence can be gathered, analyzed and shared internationally," he observes. "Police officers worldwide must be properly equipped, trained and motivated to stop terrorism. ... If you prevent someone who's dangerous from leaving his country, then you protect your country."

Noble has already mapped out a number of additional changes that he wants to make. At the top of his list is a secure Web-based data system that can be used by police anywhere in the world, reducing the time required to post Interpol notices to hours or minutes. This system will have greater search and analysis capabilities than the current technology, but it will require computers that the police in many member countries do not yet have. As of last September, only 40 member countries could access the Interpol Web site from their national central bureau.

It's not enough for police to have the technology required to share information; they also have to be willing to share it. Often police are reluctant to share intelligence with other organizations in their own country, let alone with outsiders. For Interpol to be most effective, Noble must break down barriers and increase cooperation and trust among police forces, Interpol's national central bureaus and headquarters. And he wants to forge alliances with organizations and professions that police don't usually regard as partners, such as the financial services industry, accounting firms and government regulators. "The tools we need to prevent criminal activity are not only found in the police toolbox," he observes.

Noble is also committed to developing stronger regional bases to support member countries that have similar problems and face similar threats in particular geographical areas. He has tripled the number of Interpol staff members involved in regional and national police support, and he recently created a new assistant directorate to focus on North Africa and the Middle East.

These improvements aren't cheap, and they can't be accomplished with Interpol's current budget of $28 million a year--one-tenth of the amount Osama bin Laden is estimated to have at his disposal. Noble says that Interpol will need to see a quantum increase in funding in the coming years. Some of the funding must come from member countries, but Noble is also exploring partnerships with the private sector, and he's even thinking about starting a nonprofit foundation to raise money for Interpol programs.

"The world's criminals operate on a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year clock and they are armed with the best computers and technology," Noble says. "One way or another, we must make sure that Interpol is staffed, funded and equipped to compete with them."

Mention Ron Noble's name to anyone who has known him--a college friend, a former professor, a law enforcement colleague--and he or she will use the same word to describe him: dedicated. An acknowledged workaholic, he regularly puts in 14- to 16-hour days on the job, often winding up with an hour of study in Arabic. (He already speaks French, Spanish and German.) It's not unusual for correspondents to receive e-mail messages that he fired off in the wee hours of the morning. He logs thousands of miles a month on planes and trains.

Since his election as secretary general, however, he has new priorities to juggle. He was married in 2000, and the couple's son, Max, was born in 2001. Somewhat self-conscious in his role as a new father, Noble nonetheless needs little urging to pull out his wallet and proudly display a photo of Max. Sometimes when he has a spare moment during the day, Noble can visit his family in their personal apartment in the Interpol building, but his wife and son are not usually there.

After Sept. 11, a French magazine cited Interpol headquarters as the second most likely terrorist target in the country, after the Eiffel tower. The article was illustrated with a computer-generated photograph of a plane flying into Interpol headquarters. Because of the obvious threat to their safety, the Nobles have apartments in several locations and move from one to another on an irregular schedule.

Being a target "is not something you think about all the time," Noble says. "Just every now and then when a situation like that [the magazine article] arises or you receive threats. I've met many people throughout the world who have risked and sometimes lost their lives to fight organized crime or corrupt governments. Being part of that fight is something I'm honored to do.

"We have an incredible task before us. We're trying to make the world safer." ~

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See also:
Meet the Man from Interpol
The Interpol Dossier