(CNSNews.com) – An executive order signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 16 extending certain legal exemptions to the international crime clearinghouse Interpol may limit civil oversight of the organization, including preventing citizens and citizens’ groups from gaining access to its records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But it will not mean "blue bereted officers" will operate freely on the streets of America's cities, said an expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“There are already too many unaccountable, opaque organizations operating in the United States, most obviously the United Nations,” Steven Groves, the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, told CNSNews.com.
But, Groves said, Interpol -- founded in 1923 and made up of 188 country members, including the United States, to share information about international criminal investigations -- works closely with U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Interpol has a bureau inside the Department of Justice (DOJ) staffed by American officials.
As a criminal information clearinghouse, Interpol's records include files on wanted criminals, known or suspected terrorists and other crimes, including stolen property or identities.
According to Groves and Interpol, the organization does not have officers who have the authority to make arrests.
“It’s not going to result in blue bereted officers arresting U.S. citizens on the streets and sending them to international courts,” Groves said.
Rachel Billington, an Interpol spokesman, told The New York Times last month that every member nation has authority over arrests and detention on its soil.
“We don’t send officers into the field to arrest people; we don’t have agents that go investigate crimes,” Billingston said. “This is always done by the national police in the member country under their national laws.”
The Dec. 16 executive order signed by Obama -- "Amending Executive Order 12425, Designating Interpol as a public international organization entitled to enjoy certain privileges, exemptions, and immunities" -- caused a stir among mostly conservatives, who saw it as an attempt by the Obama administration to undermine civil liberties and allow an international policing organization to act with impunity in the United States.
In a Dec. 30 editorial, the Washington Examiner said it "may be the most destructive blow ever struck against American constitutional civil liberties."
But Groves said the request for extended immunity, in particular access to its records and documents by the general public, was made by Interpol to the Bush administration in 2004 when the organization opened its first independent office in the United States inside the United Nations complex in New York City.
Groves said most of the process of reviewing and approving the request took place during Bush’s second term and was not completed until after he left office, resulting in Obama’s signature on the executive order. Obama could have decided not to sign the order.
Nonetheless, Groves believes it is now the Obama administration’s responsibility to “fill the gap” of accountability and oversight that the order will deny U.S. citizens and citizens' groups when it comes to Interpol and its activities on American soil. He said Obama or Congress should create more government oversight of the organization.
“My question is, ‘What is the government doing to fill that gap?’” Groves said.
"The executive order updating Interpol status is based on the fact that for the past five years we gave them an office here in order to assist them with information sharing between governments,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. “All it does is simply bring them, give them the same privileges and responsibilities that any other international organizations have in this country like the IAEA, the Red Cross.”
Asked if Interpol would have police powers that could potentially violate Americans’ constitutional rights, Gibbs said, “Of course not. Absolutely not.”
The original law, the International Organizations Immunities Act, was enacted by Congress in 1945. The act has been altered three times by executive order -- by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and by Obama last month.
In 1983, Reagan extended immunity from lawsuits to Interpol, which held its annual meeting that year in the United States.
In 1995, Clinton gave Interpol immunity from paying federal income taxes and custom duties.
Obama's executive order extends immunity to include protecting Interpol’s records and documents from public view through FOIA or other means.