The chief of Interpol—the international police organization based in Lyon, France—is denouncing as “false and irresponsible” a conspiracy theory spreading through the right-wing blogosphere suggesting that President Obama has given the agency new powers to investigate and arrest U.S. citizens. The claim stems from an executive order Obama signed on Dec. 17 that gives Interpol the same “immunities and privileges” as other international organizations with offices in the United States. White House officials say the order is routine—and was actually in the works during the Bush administration. But in recent days, the idea that Obama has empowered a “global police force” to operate inside the country has gained new currency thanks to endorsements by several high-profile conservative figures, including Fox News host Glenn Beck and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In a spot with Bill O’Reilly last week, Gingrich said that Obama had “quietly” signed an order that lifts “all the constraints” on Interpol and gives it “extra” legal powers to investigate Americans. “This is not within the realm of reality,” says Ronald Noble, Interpol’s secretary-general, who formerly served as the Treasury Department’s chief law-enforcement official. What especially worries him, Noble says, is that the comments by Gingrich and others could undermine one of Interpol’s chief missions—helping the U.S. and other countries identify terrorists trying to cross international borders.
To some extent, the Interpol discussion is just the latest chapter in the wacky conspiracy wars that Obama’s presidency has spawned. (One right-wing blogger on Prophecy News Watch cited Obama’s order as further evidence he was the Antichrist and would use Interpol agents “with known ties to Muslim countries” to crush political opponents.) It has also been fueled by a misunderstanding about what Interpol does: it serves as a clearinghouse for police agencies around the world to share information, posting “red notices” about criminal suspects and maintaining a master database of stolen passports. “We have no authority to arrest anyone,” says Noble. The executive order Obama signed merely gave the employees of a small Interpol office in New York the same privileges that Ronald Reagan granted other international organizations in 1983, like exempting them from certain taxes and fees and protecting their files from the Freedom of Information Act. But by “scaring people unnecessarily,” Noble says, Gingrich will make Americans “hesitate” to share information with the agency. Gingrich, for his part, isn’t backing down. “Why does he need immunity at all?” he said when told of Noble’s comments. Obama’s executive order, he added, was mainly about advancing an agenda “on the left” aimed at using “international law to coerce Americans.”