Just What Did President Obama’s Executive Order regarding INTERPOL Do?

Dec 30, 2009 1:22pm

Some viewers/readers have asked me about an executive order President Obama signed earlier this month regarding INTERPOL, an issue that has exploded on the conservative blogosphere with all sorts of nefarious insinuations and accusations.

Here are some background and the facts:

On June 16, 1983, President Reagan signed Executive Order 12425, which designated the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) as a public international organization entitled to enjoy the privileges, exemptions and immunities conferred by the International Organizations Immunities Act.

The International Organizations Immunities Act, signed into law in 1945, established a special group of foreign or international organizations whose members could work in the U.S. and enjoy certain exemptions from US taxes and search and seizure laws.

Experts say there are about 75 organizations in the US covered by the International Organizations Immunities Act — including the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Monetary Fund, the International Committee of the Red Cross, even the International Pacific Halibut Commission and Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.

(These privileges are not the same as the rights afforded under "diplomatic immunity," they are considerably less. "Diplomatic immunity" comes from the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that a "diplomatic agent shall enjoy immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving State." That is NOT what the International Organizations Immunities Act is.)

Basically, recognizing a group under the International Organizations Immunities Act means officials from those organizations are exempt from some taxes and customs fees, and that their records cannot be seized.

This, I'm told, is so these organizations can work throughout the world without different countries spying on each other by accessing the records of these groups.

Each president has designated some organizations covered by the International Organizations Immunities Act.

President Nixon did it for the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property.

President Reagan bestowed these privileges to the African Development Bank, the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico, and the World Tourism Organization, among others.

President Bush through Executive Orders covered the European Central Bank, the African Union and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria.

INTERPOL is course a different type of organization — it's an investigative law enforcement body. In fact, it's the world’s largest international police organization.

Created in 1923, INTERPOL has 188 member countries including the US. Its purpose is to facilitate cross-border police co-operation and to work with other legitimate law enforcement organizations worldwide to prevent and combat international crime, with a focus on: drugs and criminal organizations; financial and high-tech crime; fugitives; public safety and terrorism; trafficking in human beings; and corruption.

The US historically has participated whole-heartedly in INTERPOL; the current Secretary General of INTERPOL is Ronald Noble, a former Undersecretary of Enforcement of the Department of the Treasury during the Clinton administration.

"The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have closely coordinated with INTERPOL for many, many years," a former counterterrorism official who served during the Bush administration says approvingly.

In Lyon, France, 2003, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke to INTERPOL and said to Noble, "INTERPOL was already a top-flight law enforcement organization, but your dynamic leadership has brought new dimensions to this global crime-fighting resource."

Reagan's 1983 executive order, however, did not provide blanket exemptions for INTERPOL officials, who at the time did not have a permanent office in the US. The provisions of the International Organizations Immunities Act that INTERPOL officials were not exempt from included:

• Section 2(c), which provided officials immunity from their property and assets being searched and confiscated; including their archives;
• the portions of Section 2(d) and Section 3 relating to customs duties and federal internal-revenue importation taxes;
• Section 4, dealing with federal taxes;
• Section 5, dealing with Social Security; and
• Section 6, dealing with property taxes.

I'm told INTERPOL didn't have a permanent office in the US until 2004, which is why it wasn’t until this month afforded the same full privileges given, say, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission by President Kennedy in 1962.

In September 1995, President Clinton updated Reagan's executive order with Executive Order No. 12971, giving INTERPOL officials exemption from some of the customs duties and federal internal-revenue importation taxes’.

Then in his December 17, 2009, executive order President Obama exempted INTERPOL from the rest of the exceptions Reagan listed — Section 2(c), Section 3, Section 4, Section 5, and Section 6.

So what does the counterterrorism official from the Bush years think of this?

He can't believe it's taken this long.

"To the extent that granting these immunities to INTERPOL furthers the efficacy or ease of information-sharing or joint action on an expedited basis to act on warrants
seems like a no brainer to me," the official says.

"Conservatives can't have it both ways," the official says. "You can't be complaining about the hypothetical abdication of US jurisdiction at the same time you're complaining the Obama administration is not being tough enough on national security."

Obama administration officials say this new executive order doesn't allow INTERPOL to do any more than they were allowed to do once Reagan recognized them as a public international organization. Though clearly the Executive Order does prohibit US law enforcement from searching and seizing INTERPOL records, officials say, those provisions can be waived by the president if need be.

- jpt

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