Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 326-339)

Mr Ron Noble


  Q326Chairman: Mr Noble, welcome. It is very good of you to come from Lyon to give evidence to this Committee. I would also like to thank you very much for the written evidence which you sent to us some time ago. As I think you know, this session is being televised; it is on the record. For the benefit of any members of the public or those who are watching I should record the subject of the inquiry. It is an examination of a number of proposals designed to   strengthen EU counter-terrorism activities, particularly through much more extensive data exchange. These proposals raise important issues relating to, among other things, data protection and the institutional arrangements within the EU for combating terrorism, which is of course a global problem not confined to the EU. This session gives us the opportunity with your help to look at it in a much wider perspective. We have all recorded any interests that are relevant to the inquiry and they are available at the back of the room. I am not proposing to ask members of the Committee to repeat their interests in this session. Would you like to make an opening statement before we come to the questions?

  Mr Noble: Yes, my Lord Chairman.

  Q327Chairman: Please do.

  Mr Noble: My Lord Chairman, my Lords, it is an honour for me to have been asked to provide evidence to this distinguished committee. To be safe the UK, the European Union and all countries must strive to prevent local criminals from escaping internationally and international criminals from crossing inside any one country's borders. I say this because the world of policing has changed since 11 September 2001 and 11 March 2004. It is the view of Interpol that no responsible or prudent police investigator should consider a case closed until he or she has consulted Interpol's local databases. Without consulting Interpol a police investigator would not know whether the suspect under investigation was known under any other name in another country, would not know whether the suspect was under criminal investigation by another country's police service or whether the suspect was wanted for arrest by another country for a more serious crime. Interpol has scores of examples proving this point, but the most recent example comes from the UK. The UK sent to Interpol sex crime scene DNA samples of unknown suspects, so no privacy issues were at stake here. The UK's initiative was rewarded by their receiving 12 positive hits based on unknown DNA samples stored at Interpol. Now the UK and other Interpol member countries know that the alleged suspects may be committing sex crimes not only in the UK but in other countries as well. This last example proves the necessity of the European Union member countries' police forces co-operating not only nationally and regionally but also globally through Interpol.

  Currently the European Union appears to believe that it should concentrate only or principally on national and European police institutions to keep Europe safe from terrorism. In Interpol's view this would be a mistake. In fact, national and European police institutions share one common weakness: neither can fight international crime successfully unless Interpol is used. I will use the UK again as an example. In the last year the UK has made over 10,000 name inquiries using Interpol's databases and it has received almost 5,000 positive hits from 149 different countries, clearly demonstrating the need for European member countries to look both inside and outside Europe for help. I will close by saying that Interpol has 182 member countries. It has received strong support from the UK, NCIS in particular, and from the UK's own Interpol National Central Bureau (NCB). Our most significant partners are from the European Union but sometimes when the European Union looks for help it looks only at European institutions and national institutions and my hope today is that after my giving this evidence you will consider Interpol an additional tool to use in keeping this country safe from terrorists and other dangerous criminals.

  Q328Chairman: Mr Noble, thank you very much. That is extremely helpful. Could we talk a bit about the basis of Interpol? Do you have a constitution? Are you accountable and, if so, to whom? How do your members work together in practice? You have given us some examples, very helpfully.

  Mr Noble: Interpol is a 182-country organisation. We have a constitution that has a number of articles, the most important of which is that we are forbidden from being involved in matters of a political, racial, religious or military nature. We have a one country, one vote system. We have no security council and no country has a right of veto. We are overseen by a 13-member Executive Committee and that includes the Head of the Interpol NCB in the UK, Mr Ken Pandolfi. Each Interpol member country has an Interpol National Central Bureau that is 100 per cent controlled by the member country concerned. Any rule or any resolution or any decision that we take must be consistent with the individual sovereign member country that wishes to execute it.

  We have three core functions. One is that we provide the world's police forces with a secure global communication system that allows them to share messages with any country they choose, so if the UK wishes to send a message to only three Interpol member countries then only those three Interpol member countries will receive the message. The sender of the information controls which countries have the right to access the information in question. That is, the sending country decides what other countries can receive it and can make access to the information even narrower by having a particular working group established with identifiable persons given authorization to access. For example, the UK is a strong participant in Interpol's efforts to fight the sexual exploitation of children over the internet. The working group involved in that includes identified individuals who have their own secure network that others cannot have access to because of the secure nature of the information concerned. Finally, we have our General Assembly that is the ultimate arbiter of any decision taken by the organisation. We try to function by recognising that it is important to allow those countries which wish to co-operate to co-operate. Those countries whichdo not wish to co-operate are not required to do so on whatever cases or situations they choose not to.

  Q329Chairman: How much of Interpol's activities at present are related to terrorism and counter-terrorism as opposed to other forms of crime? Could I ask a supplementary on that because you said that your constitution excludes religion? Is this in practice a constraint in meeting the threat of Islamic terrorism?

  Mr Noble: What our constitution prevents is for us to assist the prosecution of someone for having violated a religious law. If a country were to say, "You cannot be a Catholic in this country", that is the kind of case we would not be permitted to work on. In terms of terrorism and the problems that our constitution poses in fighting terrorism, what we try to do is facilitate countries finding information out that helps them determine whether or not a person suspected of being a terrorist is in fact a terrorist or is not a terrorist We believe that, to the extent that our constitution prevents us from getting involved in political matters, that is a case-by-case determination that is very difficult, very time-consuming, and we try to make the best decisions that we can.

  Q330Chairman: If I could return to my question, what sort of proportion of your work at present is related to terrorism?

  Mr Noble: It is difficult for me to put a percentage on it but I can give you examples by focusing on priorities. Our number one priority is fighting terrorists, terrorism and serious international crime. From Interpol's perspective, when Interpol receives a message requesting help in identifying a name or a phone number or an address, Interpol might not know whether the case is a terrorist case or an organised crime case, so what we try to do is help the member country determine what assistance it needs on a case-by-case basis because if the UK is looking for a murderer, a sex offender, a fugitive who has escaped, we have a Command and Co-ordination Center that we established to fight terrorism. We have incident response teams that we send to countries where terrorist attacks occur. We have sent 17 of those teams. We will circulate worldwide within one day a country's request to seek the apprehension of a terrorist. We have a Terrorism Task Force that we established, which between 2002 and 2004 added an additional 2,000 suspected terrorists to the list. Everything we do is tied to terrorism in some way because we are trying to help countries prevent terrorist acts. In terms of the budget I could not give you a percentage; I am sorry.

  Q331Chairman: Do you see yourselves primarily as a channel of communication between countries? To what extent are you doing analysis and political work?

  Mr Noble: We have, as I mentioned, three core functions. One is to facilitate a member country's ability to communicate around the world when it is seeking information about someone, so yes, we do perform that function, but in the analytical area we perform a great deal of functions. For example, assume there is, as we had just last week, a case involving a suspected paedophile. We had a videotape of the person which also had a voice component to it. We extracted the voice and we used our global communication system to send the voice around the world to see if someone could recognise the accent to help us identify where this person was located. We sent an Incident Response Team to Bangladesh following a terrorist attack there and we learned that they did not have a great case investigative structure for terrorist investigations, so we provided some help there. The final example I will give you is that in our Fusion Task Force we have working group meetings and, based on the information received in those working group meetings, analytical reports are generated. We provide three core functions but we also provide analytical support as needed and try to do it on the most important cases or the cases that seem to have the widest impact.

  Q332Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: You said that it is up to the country that provides the information to decide to whom this information goes. Would there be any case where Interpol receives information, sees where the country wants to send it, and thinks, "Ah, there are other countries who ought to have this", and you would advise the first country accordingly? Would that ever happen?

  Mr Noble: That happens frequently. I recall Christmas Eve 2002 when we received a notification from a member country that they believed there might have been a parcel bomb placed on a plane headed towards country A. They wanted the information only to go to country A but we believed the information was so important that it needed to go to a number of countries, so we contacted the sender of the information and we said, "We believe this should be shared more broadly", and they agreed and so we shared it more broadly. We also have countries that we know do not have strong bilateral relations, so country A might send us a message asking about person Z. Country B might send us information about person Z, but they say, "Do not send the information to the other country". We contact each country and we say, "You are interested in the same person. You must find a way to communicate with one another".

  Q333Lord Dubs: You have partly answered my question but let me just get the remainder of it on record. In your opening statement you gave an example of where there had been a sex offender and where you established, to help the British police, that there was evidence that that same person had committed offences in a number of countries. That slightly tells me how it helps the British police but it does not really get them very much further Is it a constraint on your operations if you cannot get more information in order to give more helpful information to the police force that has requested the information?

  Mr Noble: If I could answer the first part, I would submit that it is very helpful. What was sent to Interpol were crime scene samples of someone unknown to the UK. By sending the crime scene sample to Interpol and by Interpol identifying other crime scene samples in other countries, those countries can get together and find out whether there are commonalities to it in order to help identify the person. With regard to sharing information, nationally, regionally and globally countries' police forces and intelligence services could be sharing more information; that is a fact. What we try to do is use example after example of where sharing information helps facilitate the protection of the country concerned in order to encourage that sharing of information to occur. There are, I would say, three barriers. One is lack of knowledge about what Interpol can do and how it does it. Another is a lack of willingness on the part of a member country to share information and the third is the inability technically or legally to share the information with Interpol. The example I would give you is in the area of DNA. Our database is of anonymous DNA samples, so there are no privacy issues, but we know one day in the future Interpol's database should include DNA profiles with some identifying information, like we have for fingerprints. I hope that has given you some comfort in terms of how it helped the UK but also recognising that there are barriers that do exist.

  Q334Lord Avebury: You have just said that police forces with intelligence services could be of benefit if both of them shared more information than they do on a national basis. Are there any rights of access to the Interpol database by services other than the police in any of the member countries, such as customs and immigration and intelligence services?

  Mr Noble: The UK is one of the leading countries for extending access to Interpol databases beyond the Interpol NCB office. The UK's goal is in processing and implementing and extending it to all law enforcement services in the UK, including immigration, including customs, and also giving access to the intelligence and security services to the extent that they are engaged in criminal-like investigations. That is something that is currently under way in the UK and throughout Interpol member countries around the world.

  Q335Lord Avebury: You have mentioned some obstacles that exist to the provision of identifiable DNA material from investigations. Could you say what other obstacles exist to the effective exchange of information in respect of terrorism between agencies within countries and between countries?

  Mr Noble: Between agencies within countries, my Lord, there is a problem of classification and deciding what information to classify and who has access to that classified information. Depending upon the rules and regulations and policies within a country there could be limits on the kind of information that is shared. Beyond the country, if we go regionally, the intelligence services and many police services tend to be very concerned about information that is very sensitive getting in the wrong hands, and the nature of their training has been to prevent that from occurring; so they tend to share information with people with whom they have a good relationship or who come from countries with whom they have a good relationship. It is just the nature of it. The best way to overcome this obstacle is to say to someone in the intelligence service, "You have ten passport numbers that are associated with ten individuals that you believe are very dangerous and are suspected terrorists. Unless you input those ten stolen passport numbers in Interpol's database you will not know whether those ten are part of the five million that have been stolen". There is a fear to test the system and to search the system to determine whether or not someone who is of interest to you is known to someone else. The final obstacle is that there are a number of countries that have prohibitions on their police services or intelligence services working in other countries as a matter of law, and that has to be respected. From my point of view the greatest barrier is a lack of knowledge about what is possible and a lack of willingness to try. Those are what I consider the greatest barriers to international police co-operation and national police co-operation.

  Q336Lord Avebury: Is it not legitimate to have some fear that information will get into the wrong hands? Supposing that during the period when the Taliban was in control of Afghanistan they had been members of Interpol. Would people not have had reason to fear that if they had had access to the full range of Interpol information it would have got into the wrong hands?

  Mr Noble: I think that is a fair comment but our response is that that shows that the entity involved does not know how Interpol works. The member country that controls the information can say, "It cannot be shared outside this group of countries", or the member country can say, "Send it only to person A or person B". There are levels of information, levels of classification. What we are saying is that a rule that you cannot share anything at any time is a wrong rule. The rule should be, "Let us look at the information, let us look at the risk and let us decide with whom we can share". The hypothetical example I would give you would be: assume that a country knows there is someone in possession of a bio-agent which, if it were released, could kill tens of thousands of people. We would want that country's police force or security agency to share the information with someone, not just keep it to itself. I am not saying the country should share it with everyone, but my starting point is, "Look at the information, look at the risk, decide what tools are available and then try to take the best decision that you can". However, I accept your point that not all information should be shared with all countries all of the time.

  Q337Lord Avebury: As you know, within the European Union there are proposals for enhancing access to information by law enforcement authorities and providing for what is called equivalent access, and also proposals to enhance the interoperability of the EU databases. Do you support those ideas and are they practicable and have they implications for Interpol?

  Mr Noble: I strongly support the ideas. I believe that the interoperability issue it is going to be a very difficult issue to resolve and I believe Interpol has a role to play, especially on an interim basis. I will give you an example. Last night I came into the UK. I am unfortunately not a UK citizen and I was required to complete this immigration card. I was surprised that the immigration card did not ask me for my passport number. I know Interpol has a database with over five million stolen passport numbers. I say to myself, "If the interoperability does not work, if Interpol knows that there are over five million stolen passports that we have access to, if it has been proven in every serious terrorist incident that a fraudulent passport has been used, why would the UK not want to know my passport number?" Until such time as there is interoperability we are willing to let the UK download all of our stolen passport numbers.

  What we are saying is that there is an interim step that can be taken. The UK is already taking it as it links to people who are wanted. If someone is wanted that person would not come into the UK, but assume there is an unknown terrorist in possession of a stolen passport. We need to find an interim solution to make sure that those people do not get into the UK. The example that I can give that is most compelling is that the former Prime Minister of Serbia, Mr Djindjic, was assassinated on March 12 2003. The person arrested for his assassination had a stolen Croatian passport that was blank until it was made fraudulent. That passport was used to get in and out of six countries in Europe, and Singapore, and was stamped 26 times by immigration officers. If that had been another head of state or if that had resulted in tens of thousands of people being killed, our citizens would never forgive us for not trying to give access to information that has no privacy issue because it is a passport number, in order to prevent someone from getting into a country or moving from country to country. I strongly support Europe's effort to share information and the UK's effort to share information. I say this sincerely on the record, and I have said it in speeches, that when it comes to sharing information nationally the UK is one of the leaders in the world. The UK is at the forefront of pushing me as Secretary General and Interpol as an organisation to try to give countries more opportunities to share information.

  Q338Viscount Ullswater: In your very helpful written evidence you have described the various databases that Interpol operates. In fact, you listed by example at least six of them, and there may be more than that. What rules are in place governing the storage and deletion of data? Am I right in thinking that these databases are held centrally by Interpol or are they held in the 182 member countries, and how does Interpol validate the accuracy of the data that it holds?

  Mr Noble: You are correct that Interpol does have centrally located databases. We satisfy the European standards, the global standards, for data protection. We have a commission for the control of Interpol files that consists of three representatives from data protection agencies throughout the world plus an Executive Committee member from Interpol. They do spot-checks, they make sure that the regulations that we have in place, which do satisfy international and European standards, are satisfied. We were certified by the International Data Protection Certification Agency. In terms of the accuracy of the information, that is the most difficult issue to resolve because what Interpol says is, "We will do our best to report accurately what a member country has told us". If a member country says that person A is wanted for murder we will communicate accurately what person A's description is, based on what we have received, and what he is wanted for. In terms of the proof to determine whether or not the person did commit murder, that is information we cannot verify, so what Interpol does is help member countries learn what other countries believe or have said about people of interest to them.

  Q339Viscount Ullswater: That is a very interesting answer because what I would like to pursue a little bit further is that obviously some of the databases contain factual information, including criminal convictions. You were talking about a suspect at one moment but, putting aside the facts of the case, obviously you do record criminal convictions against people and stolen passports. These are the factual side, but others are concerned with much more sensitive information, such as details of terrorist suspects. Are there special arrangements for handling the ones which are suspects and the factual ones?

  Mr Noble: Yes, it is a very complex question. What I would say is that we say to member countries, "When you give us information, decide what other countries you would like to have access to that information and what other people you would like to have access to that information and only give us that information. If there is information that you are worried about being so sensitive that it might get to someone beyond that, hold that information back". If someone makes an inquiry of Interpol, we will say, "Contact the UK" or "contact Germany" or "contact Japan for further information". From our perspective, we try to put member countries in contact with one another about people who are of interest to them for having been engaged, or being suspected of having been engaged, in serious crime. It is not my goal to have the most sensitive information. My goal is to have identifying criteria that will help a member country decide whether the person of interest to it is the same person about whom another country has given us information. It is a very complex question. I hope I have at least aided you somewhat in understanding how it works.

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