Interpol reacts to ICIJ story

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Editor’s note: In the wake of the story on Interpol, produced by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and published on www.iwatchnews.org, Interpol officials submitted the following letter, signed by Rachael Billington, Interpol’s chief press officer. It is published here in its entirety. Below the Interpol letter is a response from ICIJ, written by Libby Lewis, author of the Interpol story.

Dear Sir,

As the world’s largest police organization, INTERPOL attracts global attention and is the subject of many articles, some correct and some containing errors and appearing to be biased, such as the one written by Libby Lewis and published on iWatch News on Monday 18 July.

This response to Ms Lewis’s article while mainly aimed at addressing the factual errors contained in the piece, also highlights examples of bias against INTERPOL.

After reading this response, readers of iWatch News can make their own assessment as to the overall accuracy of the article.

The article starts with the false premise that certain countries use INTERPOL for political purposes in violation of our rules and in ways that INTERPOL cannot prevent.  In fact, we have a structure and processes in place to ensure that INTERPOL’s rules and regulations are respected concerning, among other things, the issuance of INTEROL Red Notices aka international wanted persons’ notices.

Even the article’s reference to the Head of INTERPOL’s independent Commission for the Control of Files (CCF) as existing ‘to try to keep INTERPOL within the lines of international law and data protection law’ was intended to be prejudicial.  INTERPOL in fact complies with international law and standards concerning data protection; it does not just ‘try’ to do so. 

The article also misstates INTERPOL’s statistics to suggest that Iraq, Libya, Rwanda, Tajikistan and Vietnam feature in the top 30 of any kind of Red Notice list, either as yearly requests or the overall number published.

It is clear why the article fails to mention that the United States has the most valid Red Notices of any INTERPOL member country, but instead chose to misstate that Russia and Belarus were fourth and fifth on the list.

Another glaring error intended to serve the same purpose is the article’s false statement that North Korea is a member country of INTERPOL.  It is not and never has been.  So, why would the article make such a conspicuous error?

INTERPOL did not ‘refuse to give ICIJ any indication or estimate of how many cases INTERPOL deals with that are political in nature,’ a claim which is immediately refuted in the subsequent sentence which states that we did say that approximately three percent of cases are referred to our Office of Legal Affairs for review. How is this not an estimate?

The bias of the article continues when it states that ‘Rosales has been quietly scrubbed from INTERPOL’s public website,’ as if his placement there had been with some fanfare, which was not the case. Red Notices for individuals are added and removed on a daily basis from INTERPOL’s public website for a variety of reasons.

In the quote attributed to a lawyer assigned to INTERPOL’s Office of Legal Affairs, there is a bracketed reference to a ‘front office’ – this is simply sloppy journalism, what is a ‘front office’? The implication here being that INTERPOL is two separate entities, a public front and a hidden workhouse. The ‘front office’ which the article presumably refers to is our Command and Co-ordination Centre which processes enquiries and requests from all of our 188 member countries 24 hours a day/seven days a week.

To ensure that INTERPOL remains neutral, we have an established, formal, recognized system for dealing with Article 3 issues, not some ad-hoc irregular monitoring as the article would have readers believe. We would readily accept that it is fluid as we are constantly assessing the methods in which we deal with enquiries and always strive to be flexible and open to new ideas and approaches.

One basic and essential point that the author fails to mention in her article is that no country is obligated to arrest any person for whom an INTERPOL Red Notice or international wanted person’s notice has been issued.  Each country decides for itself what legal value to give Red Notice within their borders.

INTERPOL does not want or expect only positive coverage. We accept and encourage debate on questions relating to our activities as this gives us the opportunity to improve as an organization. All we would ask is that any reports and articles about INTERPOL maintain their neutrality or support non-neutral positions with accurate information.

Rachael Billington
Chief Press Officer
INTERPOL

RESPONSE FROM ICIJ:

On the day the Interpol story was published, ICIJ was made aware of the erroneous listing of North Korea as an Interpol member. ICIJ amended the story and it no longer mentions North Korea.

Rachael Billington says ICIJ’s article begins on a “false premise” that countries can abuse Interpol “in ways that Interpol cannot prevent.” Indeed, as Billington writes, Interpol has “ … a structure and processes in place to ensure Interpol’s rules and regulations are respected.”

The ICIJ article describes Interpol’s structure and process in detail. It is the first time the Interpol process has been presented in such detail in a news article.

ICIJ did not assert Interpol cannot prevent abuses.

The evidence shows that Interpol’s structure and processes still allow some countries to abuse Interpol. Witness the cases in Iran and Venezuela. It also raises questions about Interpol’s increasing automatization of its processes, which allows police to directly enter fugitive notices into Interpol’s database on their own – before Interpol even sees them.

DATA PROTECTION

Billington writes that is prejudicial to describe Interpol’s appeals body as existing “to try to keep Interpol within the lines of international law and data protection law,” because, she says, Interpol complies with international law and data protection law. 

Unfortunately, the outside experts interviewed for this story do not agree. And there is no outside court to independently decide.

 

Interpol’s data protection regime allows an unidentified number of police officers around the world – in dictatorships and democracies alike – to enter personal data directly into a global Interpol database that is instantly seen before it is vetted for accuracy or political concerns.

COUNTRIES' USE OF INTERPOL

ICIJ makes it clear in the article that the numbers on countries that use Interpol’s public Red Notices most often come from an analysis of the database as of December 10, 2010. Russia and Belarus came in fourth and fifth, respectively, in that lineup.

Billington asks why ICIJ did not write about the heavy use of Interpol by the U.S.  We wanted to write about how the U.S. uses Interpol – but the U.S. office of Interpol, housed in the U.S. Justice Department, refused our interview request – after consulting with Interpol’s headquarters in Lyon, France.

INTERPOL POWERS AND LIMITS

Billington writes that ICIJ failed to mention no country is obligated to arrest any person who is wanted by Interpol. The story states clearly that Interpol doesn’t have the power to order arrests.

STATISTICS

Billington says Interpol complied with ICIJ’s request for data on the number of cases Interpol deals with that are political in nature.

After meeting with Interpol’s lawyers, and Billington, on Jan. 6, 2011 in Lyon, ICIJ followed up with a request for the following statistics on Jan. 20, 2011:

      Questions pertaining to data on Article 3 cases (Article 3 is the article in Interpol’s constitution that bans it from involvement in political cases.)

  1. Number of total new requests for red notices by year 2005-2010. (Interpol did provide these figures.)
  2. Number of cases where the Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) acts to reject, either initially, or following review, a request for a red notice due to Article 3 concerns, by year, for 2005-2010, by year.
  3. Number of cases where OLA concludes, either initially or subsequently, that a diffusion – an informal email notice – should be withdrawn or rejected, due to Article 3 concerns, for 2005-2010, by year.
  4. Number of cases in which Article 3 action is undertaken by INTERPOL based on the recommendation of the Commission for the Control of Files, for 2005-2010 by year. To the extent possible, please provide these statistics separately for red notices and diffusions.
  5. Number of cases in which Red Notices have been published by INTERPOL, that are subsequently reviewed for Article 3 questions, for 2005-2010, by year.
  6. Number of cases where diffusions have been published, that are subsequently reviewed for Article 3 questions, for 2005-2010, by year.

Here is Interpol’s emailed response, 16 weeks later, on April 7, 2011:

“The Office of Legal Affairs is responsible for assessing the compliance of the processing of information through INTERPOL’s channels with its Constitution. The relevant statistics on this are difficult to assess, as this depends entirely on the type of notice request or diffusion received by the INTERPOL General Secretariat at any one time.

 “In short, when a notice request is received from a National Central Bureau (NCB) of a member country, or a diffusion, is sent through INTERPOL’s communication channels, the Command and Coordination Centre of the General Secretariat examines the details of the request itself including whether the required information is present and the context of the case. If there is an element to the notice request or diffusion which raises potential concerns in regards to its compliance with Article 3, the matter will be referred to the Office of Legal Affairs for legal analysis.

 “The Office of Legal Affairs assesses the information to ensure that cooperation by INTERPOL would not breach Article 3 of the Constitution – ‘It is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character’. In the event of a potential breach of this Article, the General Secretariat will refuse to process the information, and deny publication of the notice.”

The response contained no data.

On April 25, 2011, ICIJ repeated its request for Interpol data. Two days later, Billington provided the figure that “roughly three percent” of Red Notices are referred to Interpol’s Office of Legal Affairs for review.

She did not share any data on the number of cases that Interpol concludes are political.

Does Interpol have this data, in some form?  Billington does not answer this question.  Interpol’s own documents suggest that it does.

Interpol’s internal guidelines for dealing with political cases contain “real-life” examples from Interpol’s work that illustrate how it has dealt with individual political cases.

As written in the story, ICIJ knows from other sources that Interpol has rejected a number of Red Notices from Venezuela – for political concerns.

ICIJ did not get that information – or any information on political cases or the names of the countries behind them – from Interpol.