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

September 12, 1999|Jack Nelson | Jack Nelson is chief Washington correspondent for The Times

WASHINGTON — 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.

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