Conservatives have long feared that America is losing its sovereignty to international organizations, dating back to the John Birch Society issuing warnings about "one world government" in the 1950s.
And perhaps nothing evokes this fear more than the possibility of an international police or military force with power over American citizens. A recent executive order signed by President Barack Obama dealing with the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, has reignited those fears.
During a Jan. 4, 2010, appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said: "The president recently signed very quietly an executive order that basically releases Interpol from all American constraints. Freedom of Information Acts don't apply. All the constraints that you as a citizen could use against an American police force, based on a recent Obama-signed executive order, give Interpol, which has relationships with Syria, with Libya, with Iran, it gives them all sorts of extralegality in the United States in a way that has never ever before been offered to Interpol. And I'm very curious as to why the president is doing this. ... What I'm told is that it could lead to a number of investigations by Interpol in the United States, potentially aimed at American officials. And the question I would raise is, why would the president of the United States give that kind of extralegal protection to an international police force?"
"So you're saying that if there was any abuse by the CIA or something like that, that Interpol now has more authority to come into the United States and investigate it?" O'Reilly asked.
"Yes," the Georgia Republican replied.
So Gingrich was raising the specter of an unaccountable group of foreigners coming to the United States with the approval of President Obama and arresting CIA officers or other American government officials.
The key problem with this notion is that Interpol couldn't investigate CIA or American officials, because Interpol doesn't do investigations. Although Interpol is often portrayed in movies as an international police force, solving crimes and arresting bad guys, its actual purposes are modest: It helps police organizations in different countries communicate and coordinate actions, provides databases of crime information (fingerprints, stolen artwork, names of suspected terrorists), training and other support services. It doesn't arrest anyone, and doesn't even have its own officers. Instead, police forces from around the world loan their officers to the organization.
"All investigations are done by national police," Interpol spokeswoman Rachel Billington said. "We don't have powers of arrest."
So if this executive order doesn't surrender American authority, what does it do? It ensures Interpol is treated the same way any other international organization that operates on American soil is treated. Like diplomats, international organizations in the United States are given certain immunities and privileges. A 1983 executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan gave Interpol some of these privileges, but others were withheld because the organization didn't have an office on U.S. soil at the time. In 2004, Interpol opened an office near the United Nations in New York, and the Obama administration has just gotten around to giving it the rights most other international organizations have.
What are these rights? Most of them deal with federal and customs taxes, but one grants Interpol immunity from having its property -- including its archives -- searched or seized.
We spoke with Gingrich's representatives and spokesman Joe DeSantis e-mailed this response: "The argument that Interpol currently 'doesn't' do a certain activity misses the point. The executive order effectively removes the U.S.’s ability to know what Interpol is doing, and thus, if it wanted to start doing investigations into (for instance) American officials, it could, and the U.S. would have no way to ever know its activities since we have granted them immunity."
But there's no reason to believe Interpol will suddenly reverse 87 years of precedent and begin to investigate and prosecute crimes. And for an organization based around the sharing of information, it's hard to think it will begin top-secret investigations of high-profile Americans, particularly when the current head of Interpol, Ronald Noble, is an American who served as a top official in the Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton.
Noble told the conservative Web site Human Events that "the executive order gives Interpol no law-enforcement or investigative powers to engage in activities on U.S. soil." Noble said that included "searches, seizures or arrests in the U.S."
DeSantis pointed us to a National Review Online piece by Andy McCarthy. It argues that even if Interpol has no plans to investigate Americans, the "order removes the negative legal restraints that block Interpol from conducting unauthorized police activity." Even if no one thought other law enforcement organizations -- he cites the New York Police Department and the FBI -- were going to abuse their police powers, McCarthy argues, we still wouldn't remove the congressional and judicial checks that prevent them from doing so.
But, again, Interpol doesn't have police powers to abuse. It can't arrest anyone, and it doesn't conduct investigations. And even if it did, the organization's constitution bounds it to operate "within the limits of the laws existing in the different countries." The only relevant law Obama's executive order waives covers search and seizure, and that right can be reclaimed if the president deems it necessary.
Much of the teeth-gnashing likely has roots in Interpol's relationship with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, another landmark for those who see the erosion of American sovereignty. Some blogs have raised the possibility of Interpol arresting Bush administration officials for trial at the ICC. But this is a misrepresentation of the relationship between the two organizations. True, the ICC would theoretically be responsible for investigating and prosecuting war crimes allegations against U.S. officials. But Interpol would still lack the power to arrest those officials. Instead, it would put out a "red notice" alerting domestic law enforcement agencies that the person is wanted by the ICC.
Regardless, the ICC can only investigate crimes that are referred to it by the U.N. Security Council, that occur on the soil of a signatory to the court or are committed by nationals of a signatory to the court. The U.S. hasn't signed on to the ICC and can use its position on the Security Council to veto any referral. So any situation in which an ICC prosecutes an American is far-fetched.
As for a few other parts of Gingrich's statement: Interpol does have relationships with Syria, Iran and Libya, but its 188 members include stalwart U.S. allies like the United Kingdom, Israel and Australia. And as an international organization, Interpol never would have been subject to FOIA. The United States' National Central Bureau -- which is based at the Justice Department in Washington and is the main point of communication between the United States and Interpol -- says it will continue to respond to FOIA requests.
The sheer impossibility of the claims hasn't stopped them from becoming conservative talking points. After apparently originating on the blog ThreatsWatch, the claims spread to the aforementioned National Review piece, RedState.com, a column by Chuck Norris on WorldNetDaily and have been mentioned by Glenn Beck on his TV show.
Beck, perhaps looking to add some credibility to the idea, declared: "The oddest part is the story was actually reported on in the New York Times. Yes."
While the Times did report on the executive order, the story debunked many of the claims being made about it. Charlie Savage, the reporter who wrote the story, wrote in a Twitter message: "Debunking hysterical conspiracy theories about Obama's Interpol executive order."
That's exactly what Gingrich's claims are: conspiracy theories, based on wild conjecture, not reality. For fanning the flames of paranoia, Gringrich's claims earn a Pants on Fire.