Last week, the Obama Administration issued an executive order that extended certain diplomatic privileges to Interpol–the International Criminal Police Organization.  This was a pretty innocuous bureaucratic move, but it has apparently sparked some serious concerns among a certain cadre of blogger.  For example, you have Steve Shippert and Clyde Middleton of ThreatsWatch worrying that this “could conceivably include…Americans arrested on our soil by INTERPOL officers.”  And Andy McCarthy of National Review writes,

“This international police force…will be unrestrained by the U.S. Constitution and American law while it operates in the United States and affects both Americans and American interests outside the United States…Why would we elevate an international police force above American law? Why would we immunize an international police force from the limitations that constrain the FBI and other American law-enforcement agencies?”

Both McCarthy and the ThreatsWatch duo’s understanding of how Interpol works seems to be heavily shaped by fiction and film. In real life,  Interpol is also not an “international police force.”  This would imply that Interpol is composed of units of officers that can chase criminals across the world, Jason Bourne style.   In fact, there is no such thing as an “Interpol officer,” as such.  Rather, law enforcement officers from Interpol’s member states are seconded to the organization from national law enforcement agencies, like the FBI, U.S. Marshals, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, ect. 

This is not just a semantic distinction. Officers seconded to Interpol do not have any sort of transnational executive arrest power.   Rather, officers seconded to Interpol do things like coordinate busts of international child pornography rings.  The people actually making the arrests, though, are members of the national law enforcement of the country where the crimes are committed.  They are not “Interpol Officers” —  because there is no such thing as an “Interpol Officer.”  Further, “Interpol” can’t arrest an American on American soil, a Canadian on Canadian soil or a Rwandan on a Rwandan soil. Only national law enforcement can do that. 

As to the specific reaon why the Obama administration would decide, last week, to extend to Interpol the same suite of diplomatic privileges that are typically accorded to international organizations?  I don’t have a good answer for that. My sense is that it probably has something to with the accessibility of Interpol’s secure criminal databases (on things like stolen passports and the like).  But that is a question that could pretty easily be answered by a phone call to the Justice Department. 

I can say with authority that stoking concerns about Interpol whisking Americans away is un-informed fear mongering. 

*For the record, I worked at Interpol’s Headquarters in Lyon France in 2002.

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