Conservative bloggers and opinion outlets in recent days have expressed mounting alarm about an executive order by President Obama that extended certain privileges and immunities to the International Criminal Police Organization, better known as Interpol.
Bloggers have accused Mr. Obama of ceding American sovereignty, painting a portrait of an international police force operating on United States soil without legal restraints. They have also argued that the order is part of a plot to allow international courts to arrest and prosecute American officials for war crimes.
That theme is making its way from the blogosphere to more mainstream news outlets.
In a Web post for the conservative National Review last week, the commentator Andrew C. McCarthy declared that an “international police force” could now operate inside the United States “unrestrained by the U.S. Constitution and American law.” He also suggested that the order created in the Justice Department “a repository for stashing government files” beyond the reach of Congress and the public.
And an editorial in The Washington Examiner this week declared that “this new directive from Obama may be the most destructive blow ever struck against American constitutional civil liberties.”
Obama administration and Interpol officials say the fears and accusations are based on ignorance about how Interpol works and about the context and impact of the order, which was issued on Dec. 17 without any statement.
“There is nothing newsworthy here,” said Christina Reynolds, a White House spokeswoman.
Contrary to its portrayal in some movies, Interpol has no police force that conducts investigations and makes arrests. Rather, it serves its 188 member countries by working as a clearinghouse for police departments in different nations to share law enforcement information — like files on wanted criminals and terrorists, stolen cars and passports, and notices that a law enforcement agency has issued an arrest warrant for a fugitive.
In the United States, a bureau at the Justice Department staffed by American officials transmits information between law enforcement agencies and Interpol. If a foreign country issues an arrest warrant for a person inside the United States, it is up to the United States government, based on its own laws, to decide whether to apprehend the suspect.
“We don’t send officers into the field to arrest people; we don’t have agents that go investigate crimes,” said Rachel Billington, an Interpol spokeswoman. “This is always done by the national police in the member country under their national laws.”
When public international organizations are operating on United States soil, a law allows the president to grant them certain rights and immunities, just as foreign embassies receive privileges. More than 70 organizations — including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Bank and the International Pacific Halibut Commission — receive those rights.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan extended some rights — including immunity from lawsuits or prosecution for official acts — to Interpol, which was holding its annual meeting in the United States. But Mr. Reagan’s order did not include other standard privileges — like immunity from certain tax requirements and from having its property or records subject to search and seizure — because at the time, Interpol had no permanent office or employees on United States soil.
That changed in 2004, when Interpol opened a liaison office at the United Nations in New York City. The office consists of five staff members, Ms. Billington said, and they have access to law enforcement information submitted by other countries with restrictions on who may receive it.
“When the office opened in 2004, we said look, we’d like to have the Interpol staff working in the office in New York afforded the same immunities as other international organizations,” Ms. Billington said. “It’s only for the New York office.”
The State Department recommended approving the request, but the Bush White House did not complete the matter before its term ended, and so it rolled over.
The White House said it put out no statement with Mr. Obama’s order because it viewed the matter as uninteresting.
LaTonya Miller, the spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s Interpol bureau, said the order would have no effect on the bureau. It routinely receives and responds to Freedom of Information Act requests, she said, and will continue to do so.
“Nothing has changed,” she said. “We’ve been really concerned about all the misinformation that has been out there on the blogs.”
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