Clash of the crimebusters

Interpol has never been busier. But is a bitter, personal dispute between two of its most senior figures affecting its ability to fight terror? John Lichfield and William Bland investigate
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The Independent Online

This is the story, first of all, of a remarkable personal and legal battle between two public figures - a British policeman and an American lawyer - who used to be friends. It is also, according to some of the protagonists, a battle for the soul of the international police organisation Interpol.

The British policeman, who led Interpol for 15 years, is Raymond Kendall, 70, once a senior Special Branch officer in Scotland Yard. He has accused his successor of harassing his wife and blackening his reputation.

The American lawyer who replaced him as the head of Interpol three years ago, Kenneth "Ron" Noble, 48, in his turn accuses Kendall of deceit and abuse of authority.

Their row, which has been raging with little attendant publicity since Noble took over, comes before an international labour tribunal in Geneva for the third time next month. It is a complex and in many ways unseemly quarrel: one which, according to some Interpol insiders, has distracted and divided the global police agency, just as its duties - from tracking terrorists to blocking money-laundering by organised crime - have never been more pressing.

In the background lies a broader accusation: that Interpol has adopted a pro-American law-enforcement and anti- terrorist agenda since the new Secretary General took over in November 2000.

Noble, the present Secretary General, is a former public prosecutor and a law professor, and was once a senior official in the Clinton administration. His father is a former US soldier; his mother is German. He is a charming, acute, persuasive man, who - as even his enemies admit - has made some important changes to Interpol. He has, for instance, forced the agency, which helps national police forces to track criminals across international boundaries, to become a seven-day, 24-hour operation.

His enemies, however, also suggest that he is running Interpol in America's interests - something that Noble, in an interview with The Independent at Interpol headquarters in Lyons, vehemently denied. "There is no American agenda at Interpol, only a determination to serve the best interests of the international community. I have recently visited both Libya and Cuba. Does that sound like a US agenda to you?"

Noble - in his first media interview on the subject - also denied that he had "behaved in any way inappropriately" towards his predecessor's wife. He maintains the truth of his accusation - at the centre of the dispute - that Kendall acted deceitfully to obtain generous redundancy terms for his wife, also a senior Interpol official, just before he retired.

Kendall had been a police officer of the old school, a Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Special Branch at Scotland Yard; after he became the boss of Interpol in 1985, he acquired a French urbanity of manner. It was Kendall who moved Interpol from Paris to its spacious concrete-and-glass headquarters in Lyons in 1989.

His French wife, Antoinette, is a former Interpol counterfeiting specialist, now in her late fifties. The presence of the boss's wife within the Interpol secretariat had caused some tensions - including another dispute before this tribunal - long before Noble came on the scene.

In his 15 years as head of the agency, Kendall is generally agreed to have rescued Interpol from its marginal status as an unreliable and leaky institution with a dubious pro-Nazi past. He received a letter of congratulation from the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, after he retired. He still lives in Lyons, and is now president of the European Union agency that investigates corruption among European officials.

In an interview with The Independent, Kendall rejected the accusation that he had acted deceitfully as "absolute rubbish". He accused Noble of deliberately blackening his reputation in order to justify the US-oriented changes that he plans to make at Interpol. Kendall also repeated his accusation that Noble had behaved in an inappropriate manner towards his wife.

Kendall further alleges that a "whispering campaign" against him, originating in Interpol, led to the suspension of plans to give him a knighthood in 2001.

"The thing that is hard to bear is that, after a career serving my country, and serving the international community, I have been maligned, without the Home Office lifting a finger to protest or to help," he said.

The affair is further complicated by the allegedly unfair demotion of a senior legal officer in Interpol, who initially supported the case against the Kendalls, and then advised the Secretary General to drop it.

Markus Jaeger, a respected German human rights lawyer for the Council of Europe for many years, was acting chief legal counsel at Interpol in 2001. He claims that he was mistreated and squeezed out after he challenged Noble about the allegations that he harassed Mrs Kendall.

Jaeger, who has also brought a case against Interpol before the International Labour Organisation, told The Independent: "When I discovered in a letter from Kendall an allusion to what Kendall called an 'embarrassing correspondence' between Noble and his wife, I went to see the Secretary General and asked him what this meant. Noble gave me a long explanation. He was very embarrassed. From that moment onwards, his attitude towards me changed."

Noble denies that there was any change in his attitude to Jaeger as a result of this conversation. He also denies that his correspondence with Mrs Kendall - a series of what he calls "friendly, teasing" postcards - was in any way embarrassing or inappropriate. He points out that the cards were sent in 1997, when he was a senior US Treasury official, an occasional visitor to Interpol and a friend of the Kendalls. There was no complaint about the cards at the time, he maintains. The Kendalls stayed with him in his flat in New York on several occasions afterwards.

"I have never harassed anyone," Noble said. "Where I come from, we take a serious view of things like that. I've absolute respect for the rights and dignity of other people."

The claims and counter-claims - as published in the minutes of the administrative tribunal of the International Labour Organisation - are, briefly, as follows.

Just before Kendall retired, in November 2000, he took a decision - reported to Interpol's executive committee - to abolish his wife's job. She received generous redundancy terms, which Noble says were over-generous. Kendall says that the terms were entirely drawn up by senior Interpol legal and administrative officials.

The following April, Noble, in his position as the new Secretary General, rescinded Mrs Kendall's retirement. He said that his predecessor had "concealed his family interests", abused his authority and acted "deceitfully". No charge was brought against Kendall, but his wife's early retirement salary was suspended because it had been allegedly "obtained by deceit".

Kendall responded angrily that it was his successor who had originally suggested that Mrs Kendall should leave Interpol. After a number of angry exchanges - in which Kendall offered to settle with Interpol - he took his case to the International Labour Organisation. The former Interpol boss demanded the right to see the minutes of an Interpol committee meeting where, he believed, Noble had presented a "one-sided and biased" case against him. He also demanded damages.

In documents presented to the tribunal, Kendall says that he was forced to seek early retirement for his wife because she feared harassment by Noble. "His wife could not remain in the employ of a secretariat run by the new Secretary General, because in view of certain 'disgraceful precedents', of which he claims to have written evidence, there was every reason to believe that the new Secretary General would not have treated Mrs K properly."

The case continues. The ILO tribunal has ordered Interpol to release the minutes of its executive committee meeting. It has, for the time being, dismissed Kendall's claim for damages. Kendall claims that Interpol has failed to release the key part of the minutes - an alleged attack on him in a report by Noble. The tribunal is expected to make a further judgement next month.

In Jaeger's separate case before the tribunal, his claim against unfair treatment was upheld but his claim against unfair dismissal was rejected, on the grounds that he was never a permanent Interpol official.

If it did not involve such senior figures, the dispute could be dismissed as purely administrative or personal. Some former Interpol officials not directly involved in the quarrel, however, say that it is part of a pattern of autocratic behaviour by Noble since he took over. Other critics suggest that - since September 11 in particular - Noble has enormously expanded the database of files at Interpol in ways that could be damaging to the rights of individuals. Noble adamantly dismisses these claims.

He told The Independent that the number of files at Interpol has grown since he arrived, but that a fundamental principle - that Interpol keeps files only on people directly suspected by a national force - has been observed. The databases have, in part, expanded because, after September 11, many more countries have made association with suspected terrorists into a crime.

Kendall also argues that Interpol has come under excessive American influence in the last three years. He says that this has taken the form of a marginalisation of Interpol, to allow US law enforcement agencies to invade its territory.

"Since September 11, the Americans have been prepared to bend the rules whenever they think it is necessary. They are increasingly sending and using their own legal and law enforcement officers abroad in a way which creates a parallel system and cuts across the interests and authority of Interpol," Kendall said.

"Ron Noble will not oppose that - as I would have done - because he is pro-FBI. In the long run, that means a trampling of the safeguards that Interpol offers as a properly constituted international organisation. It also means less efficiency."

Noble dismisses this criticism as "absurd". "Interpol is now a more responsive and effective organisation than it was under Kendall," he said. "We operate 24 hours every day, instead of closing at 6pm. We can issue a wanted notice in one day, whereas it sometimes took four to six months under Kendall. That is not marginalisation."

Jaeger, now back with the Council of Europe, is no advocate for Noble but says that the American has brought many necessary changes to the organisation, including a modern management structure and an overdue increase in the budget, and he has "set an example for everybody in terms of the workload he covers".

The problem, Jaeger says, is that Noble runs an "extremely authoritarian regime". Criticism is said to be welcome, "but is in fact harshly sanctioned... After 9/11, Interpol's tasks have been seen through an all-American prism."

An intriguing question remains. Why, so soon after he took office, did Noble feel it necessary to call into question the integrity of his much-respected predecessor, over what seems to have been - at most - a clumsy, rather than dubious, redundancy deal for the latter's wife?

Noble insists that he had no choice but to pursue the action against Mrs Kendall. Otherwise, the alleged irregularities in the early retirement deal might have been blamed on him. Kendall is convinced that Noble was determined to discredit the ancien régime in order to pave the way for a re-moulding of Interpol in a more American image.

The story continues...