Los Angeles Times Interview : Ronald Noble : The New Man From Interpol Brings a '90s Touch to Global Crime Fighting

Jack Nelson is chief Washington correspondent for The Times

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." But almost immediately, his life took a different turn. Now he has accepted a position that will never yield the wealth he once considered paramount. Yet, it will not fall short on challenges.

As the newly named secretary general of the international law-enforcement agency known as Interpol, Noble, 42, will be charged with breathing new life into an organization that has sometimes fallen behind the times in confronting the rising tide of global crime.

Even before moving into his office at Interpol headquarters in Lyons, France, Noble has decided things have to change, including the bankers' hours Interpol follows. An acknowledged workaholic, Noble is appalled at the agency's 9-to-5, five-days-a-week schedule. He concedes that the leisurely pace may have sufficed for the French civil service, on which Interpol was modeled, but says more intensity is required now: 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 even pedophiles have begun operating on a scale that local law enforcement agencies cannot cope with alone.

To implement a full-time schedule and finance other goals, Noble expects to persuade Interpol's 177 member countries, especially the United States, to pay larger fees and dramatically increase Interpol's budget. He also envisions updating computer technology and giving priority to protecting private property.

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

What shifted Noble away from corporate law was his job as a law clerk for the late A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., the legendary U.S. Court of Appeals judge who inspired him to enter public service. Noble began as an assistant U. S. attorney. Later, he served as a Justice Department official in the Reagan and Bush administrations and as Treasury under secretary for enforcement in the Clinton administration, before returning as a professor to New York University Law School in 1996.

Interpol's 13-member executive committee selected Noble only after he waged an intensive campaign, including visiting the countries of all committee members, and secured backing from U.S. law enforcement officials. So keen were U.S. officials on helping Noble that Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, an executive-committee member, traveled to Lyons last month, two weeks after a heart bypass, to vote for him.

Though Noble hopes to bring about major changes, he is making one concession to agency tradition: He already speaks German and French, but he plans to learn Spanish, because it, too, is often used at Interpol headquarters.

Question: Could 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?

Answer: Yeah. 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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 has 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, or any other 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 . . . and then educate police officers about why Interpol can help them identify a criminal and prevent a crime rather than prosecuting a crime after a crime's been committed.

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

A: 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. For that reason, and because terrorism is something that in theory could affect any country, 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.

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

A: 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.

I believe the Tanzanian or Kenyan bombings or World Trade Center bombing--those are clear acts of terrorism. Interpol recognizes that, and most citizens of the world recognize that, and Interpol is needed to help investigate and support those kinds of investigations.

Q: What about Interpol's role in tracking down and helping in the arrest of war criminals?

A: If a war-crimes tribunal issues an indictment for a war criminal, that should be prima facie evidence that this is not a political crime, that this is the kind of crime that Interpol should use its resources to try to help bring that person to justice.

Q: In other words, that would require an Interpol Red Notice that the subject should be arrested?

A: It would require a Red Notice about [Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic. A Red Notice was issued for his arrest, but he's not been arrested. . . . Interpol defers to the decision of the police officers within the sovereign involved. Here, it's Serbia. On the other hand, Mr. Milosevic has to worry about leaving Serbia. If he leaves Serbia, then maybe the same thing that happened to Gen. [Augusto] Pinochet [of Chile, who was arrested in Britain last year] will happen to him. So Interpol is still advancing the rule of law.

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

A: 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. . . .

Q: What are other major crimes requiring major emphasis by Interpol?

A: 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. . . . So that would be something I would add, maybe surprisingly to some, as a priority for Interpol.

Q: One of the big areas of fraud involves Hollywood films.

A: 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. . . .

Q: How about computer hacking?

A: When I use the word terrorism, I think of computer-related terrorism, or Internet-related terrorism in the form of hacking, as being something that we need to get prepared for and we need to prepare our law enforcement officers for.

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. That would be the idea of a model law enforcement officer. At the turn of the century, 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 he or she is 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.

Q: Are criminals out in front of law enforcement as far as technology and sophistication of operations are concerned?

A: The private sector and criminals are so far ahead of law enforcement in terms of what they're able to do with technology that it should concern us all. . . .

At Interpol headquarters, if we don't fund it to the point that every Interpol employee has a laptop or a computer terminal and is trained and equipped to use it, then we've got to say we can't accept that. We have to change that.

Q: Is existing technology very far advanced from what Interpol has?

A: Interpol, up until the Internet came around, was really technologically more advanced than you might expect law enforcement agencies to be worldwide, because Interpol was able to send one message to 177 countries' police organizations in a matter of seconds. That made Interpol unique.

But now, anyone can set up a group of 177 entities and have them connect to one another through the Internet. It's less expensive, and with a lot of the encryption devices, it can actually be more secure than other systems.

So Interpol has to make the shift from its currently segregated and insulated communication system to an Internet-access but secure communication system. For that they need resources, equipment and training.

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

A: I'd say it's a $30-million budget doing work that ought to be valued about $30 billion. The budget is so low that it doesn't even warrant saying do we need five more million or seven more million. The budget is too low in terms of a difference of kind, not a difference of degree.

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. . . .

Interpol was created to provide local and national law enforcement agencies with support in investigating and prosecuting a crime. Yet, the structure we have in place today operates essentially from 9 to 5, five days a week at headquarters in Lyons. . . . So, I ask myself, why have we allowed Interpol to be structured in a way where it doesn't service police officers around the world, 24 hours a day fully? It doesn't make any sense. . . .

What has happened is there was a time when criminal activity took longer to evolve and get from point A to point Z. . . . But look at what happened . . . in California, the heinous attack on the Jewish child-care center. Within a matter of minutes, or hours, the suspect was 175 miles away in Las Vegas where he could have easily gotten on a plane and flown to any country in the world and engaged in more hate-related activity and more crimes. . . . Let's assume it happened after-hours in Interpol headquarters in Lyons. And let's assume we have the same thing happening in five or 10 countries, at the same time after-hours.

No one can say we can service those counties as much as we need to. That's why I say the problem is not a problem of $30 million versus $35 million. The problem is $30 million versus a billion dollars.*

"The private sector and criminals are so far ahead of law enforcement in terms of what they're able to do with technology that it should concern us all."

"Why have we allowed Interpol to be structured in a way where it doesn't service police officers around the world, 24 hours a day fully? It doesn't make sense."

"Interpol has to position itself to protect the property rights of citizens througout the world, by investigating counterfeiting, investigating fraud cases."

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