Terrorists Strike Fast… Interpol has to Move Faster… Ron Noble is on the Case

A profile of far-reaching change with life-and-death consequences

Pretend that it’s September 7, 2001.


It’s four days before the grim-faced hijackers slip past airport security with their box cutters. Four days before the world watches their awful plan unfold in a searing sequence of smoke and flames and collapsing skyscrapers. Four days before so much in the world changes.

Now imagine that a cop somewhere — in Germany or Saudi Arabia — thinks to contact Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France that night. (Yes, that Interpol: the international police organization that most Americans probably still associate with the Cold War.) The cop is seeking the arrest of one of the 19 men who would become hijackers, and Interpol’s primary function is to help law-enforcement authorities share information about suspected criminals worldwide. No matter. It may be four days before September 11, but it is also Friday after 6 PM: Interpol’s headquarters is closed for the weekend.

Now pretend that it’s August 2001 — or better yet, May, four months before Mohamed Atta becomes a household name. This time the cop gets through and requests an Interpol red notice, the equivalent of a global wanted-persons notice. The outome still doesn’t change. Due to a backlog of requests — and because those requests were sent through the mail, third class — Interpol alerts take up to six months to process. Again, it’s too late.


Ron Noble doesn’t need to be reminded of how ill prepared Interpol was to help prevent the devastation. In November 2000, when he became the organization’s secretary general, he recognized that the agency, which is essentially a clearinghouse for international crime, needed to reinvent itself. In fact, two major improvements — running Interpol headquarters around the clock and sending out alerts for terrorists within 24 hours and alerts for less-threatening criminals within 72 hours — were scheduled to launch on September 17. Instead, the new era began six days early, in the first hours following the attacks.

Transforming Interpol from a clumsy, outdated agency into a sleek, modern force is an urgent, difficult — indeed, noble — mission. It is also a case study in change with life-and-death consequences — and huge implications for U.S. security. The central strategic question is as simple as it is thorny: How do large, established, slow-moving bureaucracies battle an enemy that is fast, nimble, elusive, and widely dispersed? President Bush has been struggling with that question at the FBI, the CIA, and his proposed Department of Homeland Security. Ron Noble has the same problem but with an added twist: He has to work with countries from every corner of the globe.

The challenge is onerous. Noble is reshaping an organization that is rooted in tradition and that is, in many respects, built for another time, a different way of fighting crime, and certainly a different pace. But Noble seems well suited for the job. A former federal prosecutor and law professor, and the first U.S. Treasury undersecretary of enforcement, he’s driven, charming, and multilingual.


That last attribute is crucial. The organization has 179 member countries (numbers 180 and 181, Afghanistan and East Timor, join the fold this month at the annual general assembly), second only to the United Nations. Interpol relies on member countries to assist one another voluntarily in international investigations. If getting various U.S. agencies to work together sounds daunting, consider Noble’s task: to foster cooperation among countries with different legal and political systems — not to mention different languages and cultures. And there’s one more catch: He must do this with an annual budget of just $28 million, or about one-tenth that of the New York Police Department.

When Interpol works, it works very well; terrorists, murderers, and other fugitives are apprehended because of the information that it feeds authorities. At other times, however, it’s as though Interpol doesn’t exist. A criminal flees the country, and an investigation stalls, all because the local officer doesn’t realize that Interpol could help.

Lately, though, the agency’s profile has been rising. In March, Noble participated in a security summit in Florida alongside U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden. “Normally, we might find out about a meeting with department heads only because we asked,” says Edgar Adamson, director of the U.S. Interpol National Central Bureau (NCB) in Washington, DC. “Now they understand our role.”


In a world that is increasingly reliant on coordinated law enforcement, Interpol has become more relevant than ever. “In a way, we’ve been helped by one of the most tragic events imaginable,” says Noble. Or, as Leif Halberg, Interpol’s head of communications and publications, explains, “Voltaire said, ‘If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’ Well, if Interpol didn’t exist, I think that establishing a global organization dedicated to cooperation in law enforcement would be at the top of the agenda. And it would have a much larger budget.”

Low Profile, High Impact
“How easy was it for you to get in here to see me?” Ron Noble asks. He’s sitting in a black leather chair in a huge corner office on the top floor of Interpol headquarters in Lyon. The view is stunning; the winding Rhone River is on one side, the lush Parc de la Tete d’Or is on the other.

He knows what you’ll say, but he likes to hear it anyway. There’s no sign outside the concrete-and-glass monolith. There’s a high green iron fence and an unmarked gate. “Right,” says Noble. “You think, ‘Do I wait for instructions? Do they know I’m here?’ “


Eventually, a voice addresses you through a speaker. The heavy gate opens slowly, like a tank in reluctant retreat. You enter a small security building, where the guards study you from behind bulletproof glass. Then you slide your passport through a metal tray and step into a slender glass tube to be scanned for weapons. The door, adorned with the Interpol insignia — a sword, scales, and a globe — closes behind you. This is Noble’s favorite part: “The tube gives us the ability to isolate someone.”

You’re trapped for a moment — a rather long moment — before the door in front opens. Then you wait for an escort to walk you the remaining 40 yards to the main building. You can’t go anywhere without an escort. The doors and the elevator won’t operate without an ID badge. That’s how easy it is to see the secretary general of Interpol. “Psychologically, the experience is anything but a warm welcome,” says Noble. “You know that you’re entering a place where security is the priority.”

In a way, though, the experience is welcome, because it lives up to Interpol’s considerable mystique. In the late 1950s, the organization inspired not one but two TV shows in Britain. On Man from Interpol, agent Anthony Smith solved the cases of a diamond-smuggling pigeon in England and a truckload of gold cigarette lighters stolen from France. He worked undercover to bust a human-trafficking ring in Europe. Think ABC’s Alias, in black and white, without Jennifer Garner.


Today, Noble is the man from Interpol. He doesn’t sport a trench coat or wield a gun or sip a shaken-not-stirred martini. In his dark suit and white-cuffed shirt, he looks more like a corporate lawyer than the world’s top cop. Only the shiny cuff links with the Interpol seal give him away.

The mementos in his office not only trace an illustrious career path that included being the chief law-enforcement officer at the Treasury, where he oversaw 35,000 federal employees, including agents at the Secret Service, Customs, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They also allude to a dangerous, unpredictable world. There’s an embroidered tribute to the four ATF officers killed at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. There’s a fist-sized chunk of rubble from the Oklahoma City bombing in recognition of the eight Treasury agents who lost their lives there.

In the year and a half since he became secretary general, Noble has visited more than 45 countries. He lobbies for more resources and explains what Interpol does. Although the name is well known, the organization is routinely misunderstood, even among police officers. (See “Interpol’s Image Problem,” page 103.) It is a unique player in law enforcement, a voluntary global club that dates back to 1923, when Vienna’s chief of police convinced counterparts in 20 countries to share crime tips and expertise. Part of the misperception today stems from the cloak-and-dagger intrigue so prevalent in pop culture’s version of international police work. “People have the impression that we have secret agents who travel around arresting fugitives,” says Noble.


In truth, Interpol’s officers work behind the scenes, mainly with computers, performing low-profile but vital police work: relaying messages, sending out notices about suspects, mining Interpol’s vast database for clues. Think of it as the back-office of international law enforcement. “That’s what police work is about: painstaking investigation,” says Noble.

Law-enforcement officers in the field make the actual arrests — and the headlines. Interpol staffers seem content to play a supporting role rather than the lead, working through each country’s NCB. The NCB is a local cop’s point of contact with Interpol. “We don’t own the case, so we don’t own the story,” explains Adamson at the U.S. NCB. When Interpol’s involvement in an investigation is brief — exchanging a few messages with a foreign country, for example — its staff might not even hear the outcome. “We’ll recognize a case in the paper and know that we had a piece of it,” says Adamson.

When Interpol does get mentioned in a story, it’s often no more than a single line: In June, Swedish and French Interpol agents helped track down Ira Einhorn, the so-called hippie killer convicted in absentia for murdering his girlfriend in Philadelphia in 1977. Or: Interpol intelligence helped apprehend reputed Colombian drug kingpin Justo Pastor Perafan as he strolled through a Venezuelan shopping mall.


Interpol has had its share of high-profile cases: Carlos the Jackal, the notorious Venezuelan terrorist and longtime fugitive who was apprehended in Sudan in 1994, and James Kopp, who was arrested in France last year for the murder of a Buffalo, New York doctor who performed abortions. In April, officials in Madrid announced the arrest of Abu Talha, who was suspected of funneling money to members of Al Qaeda, some of whom may have helped organize the September 11 attacks. As usual, though, it wasn’t clear exactly what part Interpol played in the arrest.

Ask Noble, and he demurs. Then he smiles and shrugs. He finds himself in the peculiar position of lauding Interpol’s effectiveness while revealing little about its operations. “I can’t talk about the really great cases,” he says.

The Global Imperative
Noble didn’t join Interpol cold. In fact, he initiated reforms before he was elected secretary general. In 1998, Noble, who at one point served on Interpol’s executive committee, conducted a study of the dues structure and suggested shifting greater responsibility to the wealthier members, as the UN does. Many of the poorest countries were behind in their payments and had lost voting privileges. He argued that Interpol was less global without these members, and therefore less effective. Interpol adopted his plan. As secretary general, he is adamant about upgrading the computer and communications equipment used by the NCBs of the poorest countries. Wealthy members such as the United States should invest in the project, he says, because it’s in their interest. “Wouldn’t you pay for your neighbor to have a phone so that he could tell you when someone was coming to burglarize your house?” asks Noble.


With police officers and law-enforcement agents from 55 countries working under one roof, Interpol headquarters is the epitome of international teamwork. But Noble says that it should be even more diverse: Nearly three-quarters of the member countries still don’t have representatives in Lyon. This is partly due to the fact that the Lyon facility isn’t big enough to house them, but it’s also true that Interpol has long had a decidedly European — more specifically, French — orientation. In addition to its locale (until 1989, its headquarters was outside of Paris), its leadership has been historically French since World War II. Noble has appointed subdirectors from each geographic region — a first for Interpol — and courted officials in Asia and Africa. During visits to Lebanon, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore, he urged the authorities there to assign officers to Lyon.

Interpol’s critics, however, argue that the agency is too inclusive. As long as Cuba, Iraq, and Libya are members, they say, the U.S. should not participate. But Noble insists that inclusion is Interpol’s strength. The first country to issue an Interpol red notice for the arrest of Osama bin Laden wasn’t the United States — it was Libya, in 1998, for the murder of two German nationals. “If you’re looking for dangerous people,” Noble says, “you don’t care whether it’s your enemy or your friend who tells you, as long as you find out.”

In 2000, 92 countries shared terrorism-related information with Interpol. Noble wants to see that number go up. But member countries aren’t required to share. They decide how much to disclose and stipulate which members have access. Interpol’s criminal database, the International Criminal Information System, or ICIS, is the global equivalent of the U.S. National Crime Information Center, or NCIC. When a country gives information to Interpol, each piece of evidence — license-plate number, type of drug or weapon — is stored in a single relational database that makes links between cases and people.


Stephen Brown is an intelligence analyst in the organized-crime and drugs division. He sifts through evidence from different cases looking for any connections or patterns that might suggest a larger operation or trend. “You can search by phone numbers, hotel rooms — anything, and the database tells you if the new information matches anything we already have,” says Brown, who exudes the patience, curiosity, and meticulousness required to solve elaborate puzzles. As he describes the moment when he realizes that separate investigations overlap, he sounds like an explorer excitedly retracing his route.

Of course, law-enforcement outfits won’t share what they know unless they believe that Interpol is trustworthy. “We are the keeper of the key,” says Frank Spicka, assistant director of public safety and terrorism at Interpol headquarters. “The only way to instill trust in people is by working with them and proving that you’re worthy of it. Interpol is an evolving partnership.”

Crime and Management
Clearly, Interpol’s hours had to change. How could the headquarters of a global law-enforcement agency operate like a bank or an insurance company: 8-to-6, five days a week? “If we get a request on Friday night to issue a red notice about someone who poses an immediate threat, we can’t wait until Monday morning to act,” says Noble. “We have to be available 24 hours a day.” Now they are.


In many ways, Interpol grapples with the very same performance issues that businesses do. Creating quality products. Providing timely, reliable service. Understanding the needs of customers.

One of Interpol’s most valuable assets is its ability to distribute alerts to law-enforcement officers around the world. In 2001, more than 1,400 people were arrested or found as a result of its notices. But until September of last year, notices took four to six months to issue. They had to be reviewed for accuracy, translated into Interpol’s four official languages (English, French, Spanish, and Noble’s latest addition, Arabic), then printed, stuffed into envelopes, and mailed — third class, to cut costs. Email? Why bother? The previous secretary general never used it.

Today, the most critical notice requests get translated immediately and distributed online within 24 hours. In the communications center at headquarters, there’s a world map with lights indicating the NCBs. By entering a computer command, a woman from the communications office demonstrates how quickly a message can travel the planet. It’s impressive, but it’s not entirely realistic. Noble concedes that 80 of the NCBs lack the technology needed to send and receive Interpol’s messages. Until Interpol can supply them with the equipment they need, those NCBs will continue to issue most alerts by mail. With the money saved through electronic notices, though, Interpol now has the NCBs send their alerts via express delivery service.


As part of the reorganization, Noble reduced the number of special crime groups to five: public safety and terrorism, fugitives, organized crime and drugs, financial and high-tech crimes, and trafficking in human beings. He also trimmed those groups and reassigned officers to geographically based teams that work directly with regional and national law-enforcement agencies. He wants Interpol to be closer to its customers. “The local focus enables us to be more responsive to our member countries,” says Noble. “We want to know, What are your problems in Tajikistan? In Canada? In Colombia? You know the expression ‘All politics is local’? Well, all international crime is local crime.”

Interpol is trying to act rather than react. “We want to be a step ahead of the criminals,” says Jan Austad, an officer in the trafficking-in-human-beings division. Interpol’s people are examining incoming messages for leads, creating intelligence that only Interpol, with its global perspective, can provide on, say, online child pornography. This year, Interpol is conducting its first “global threat assessment,” culling information on terrorism groups, organized crime, and criminal techniques from its members. Noble, sounding like a savvy corporate strategist, refers to that sort of intelligence as “Interpol’s added value.”

In April, one country (“Sorry, I can’t say which one,” says Noble) asked Interpol for a list of known or suspected terrorists. Spicka and a colleague spent the weekend assembling Interpol’s first international terrorist watch list, which included more than 1,000 individuals. Just as important are two other new lists: individuals or groups who are known to be (or suspected of) funding terrorism and a record of stolen, unassigned passports. Without passports, says Spicka, who is on assignment from the Secret Service, terrorists can’t move so freely.

The reason that criminals leave one country for another is to avoid capture; they rely on a lack of coordination between law-enforcement authorities. Interpol acts as a bridge to keep the investigation going. For instance, Noble says, earlier this year, a man was arrested in Malaysia for fraud. When the authorities entered his name into the national crime database, nothing came up; he appeared to be a first-time offender. When they checked the Interpol database, however, they discovered that they’d captured one of the 10 most-wanted criminals from the Philippines. That, says Noble, is the impact of Interpol.

Life of Crime (Fighting)
“I’d like you to read something,” says Noble. He’s between meetings, talking about why his job at Interpol is such a good fit. He hands over a copy of the speech that he delivered at Interpol’s general assembly on the Greek island of Rhodes two years ago, when he was elected secretary general. In order to truly know me, Noble told the crowd, you have to know about my parents. His mother is German. His father is African-American. They met while Noble’s father was an American soldier stationed in Germany after World War II. Although they spoke different languages, followed different religions, and were of different races, theirs has been a close union for 48 years. “Thanks to them, I simply won’t accept that we can’t work together because we come from different parts of the world or have had different experiences,” Noble told the assembly.

Even as he tries to shake up Interpol, Noble is sensitive to being its first non-European leader. Fluent in German since childhood, he has become fluent in French and Spanish as well, and he recently began studying Arabic. “I want to show that respect for languages other than English is an important part of my philosophy,” he says.

Last February, Noble wrote an internal memo outlining his vision for the years ahead. When he looked over the translation, though, he noticed that the French word “l’ambition” had been substituted for “vision,” which wasn’t what he meant. Three outside translators given the same memo produced three different interpretations, each with a different meaning. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “It showed that the risk of misunderstanding is so great.”

Noble’s parents also taught him the importance of hard work. His father used to wake up at 5 AM, toil in the Army motor pool all day, then run a janitorial business at night. He put his two sons through Catholic school, the sort of education that he had never had. “My father used to tell us, ‘You’re going to meet people who are better off than you. You can’t change that,’ ” says Noble. ” ‘But you don’t have to meet anybody who works harder than you.’ “

Noble learned his lesson. At 26, after graduating from Stanford Law School, he clerked for legendary Federal Court of Appeals chief judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who persuaded Noble to go into public service. At 27, he became an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, where he later prosecuted the largest public corruption case in the city’s history. At 33, he joined the law-school faculty at New York University. At 36, he served as assistant secretary of the Treasury and eventually became the first undersecretary of enforcement. At 44, he became secretary general of Interpol. The trade-off, says Noble, was his personal life. He didn’t marry until he was 44, after falling for his Spanish professor. The couple just had their first child, a boy.

When Noble returned to NYU in May to deliver the law-school commencement address, his friend John Sexton, the outgoing dean and incoming university president, introduced him as “Justice Ron Noble.” One day, said Sexton, Noble will be on the Supreme Court. “You heard it here first,” he says. And last year, after Louis Freeh resigned as FBI director, Noble was mentioned as a possible replacement.

The expectations are flattering, but Noble, who serves a five-year term as secretary general, maintains that he now has the job that he wanted all along. He lives at the office. Of course, that was true at his previous jobs too. But now it’s really true: He has an apartment in the building, although he prefers not to say where (he also has two other residences, one of them in Lyon). “He works more than the rest of us,” says Austad, the human-trafficking officer. “He’s a man with a mission.”

That mission is a long way from completion. Just as major credit-card companies allow customers to make purchases wherever they may be, Noble wants police officers, customs agents, and other crime fighters to have instant access to Interpol’s criminal database whenever and wherever they stop a suspect. At the border. At the airport. Before it’s too late. “You have a world that is operating across national and geographic boundaries,” says Noble. “You’ve got to have cooperation within the law-enforcement community. You realize how important that is, but also how fragile.”

Chuck Salter ( is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore. Learn more about Interpol on the Web (

Sidebar: Interpol’s Image Problem

One of the most surprising things about Interpol is how underutilized it is — particularly by American law-enforcement officers. Before being assigned to Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, Frank Spicka (pictured above), an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Secret Service, had never consulted Interpol. He could have used its help while he was protecting two presidents and one ex-president and researching past assassination attempts, but he never thought to ask.

Today, Spicka, Interpol’s assistant director of public safety and terrorism, is a total convert: “When I go back, I’ll definitely spread the word.” His experience isn’t that unusual. Because the larger U.S. federal law-enforcement agencies have attachés posted in foreign countries, their agents often end up handling investigations.

“Interpol is visibly challenged,” observes Mike Muth, who works in Washington at the U.S. National Central Bureau (NCB) for Interpol. As the state and local liaison, he markets Interpol to 18,800 federal, state, and local agencies and nearly 800,000 officers. Most don’t know what Interpol does and how it could help. “When I call an agency and say the word ‘Interpol,’ they usually say, ‘Who? What? Where?’ ” says Muth.

At law-enforcement conferences and meetings, Muth teaches Interpol 101. He explains the color-coded system: Red seeks the arrest and extradition of a suspect; blue seeks information about someone, such as their identity, whereabouts, or ties to a crime; green warns countries about career criminals who travel internationally; yellow helps locate missing persons; and black seeks help identifying a corpse.

Muth tells the story of a New Jersey man who disappeared with his two daughters on Take Our Daughters to Work Day and jumped on a plane to London. His wife immediately contacted the local authorities, who contacted Interpol, which contacted British authorities, who were waiting at the airport when the plane landed. “We got a nice ending that time, all because the local cop knew about us,” Muth says.

He urges officers to think globally in their investigations and to get information on fugitives in the system as early as possible. “You don’t catch people unless they’re in the database,” says Muth. It’s not unusual for officers to ask how to become an Interpol agent. “You already are,” he tells them.


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug


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