Last week’s news that one of the “highest-level covert sources” within the Russian government had been successfully extracted in 2017 has been raising concerns along a number of fronts. Of particular concern, stories of the CIA asset relocating to the United States prompted Russia to turn to one of its tried and true methods of extending its reach abroad – abusing Interpol. Reporting on this issue highlights how the Russian government is abusing international bodies in attempts to extend its authoritarian reach into the United States.
On Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced it asked Interpol for help locating Oleg Smolenkov, a former Kremlin official who allegedly assisted the US. When we think about how the Kremlin deals with foes abroad, we tend to think of the high-profile poisonings of figures like Sergei Skripal and Alexander Litvinenko. But rather than engaging in cloak and dagger tactics, the Kremlin has another largely “legal” way of dealing with enemies outside its borders. Using Interpol, it has found a way to elicit the cooperation of foreign governments in hunting down or detaining its adversaries.
Contrary to popular imagination, Interpol is not a police force. It doesn’t issue warrants or send officers around the world to combat terrorism and crime. Instead, it functions as a “clearinghouse” or “digital bulletin board” where officers from around the world gather and share information. The 194 countries participating in Interpol have several ways they can request the cooperation of other members.
One way members coordinate is through a color-coded system of notices. The most widely known type of notice, a Red Notice, is “a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a person pending extradition, surrender, or similar legal action.” Before being published, notices are subject to a review process ensuring the notice does not violate Article 3 of Interpol’s Constitution, which forbids notices from having a “political, military, religious or racial character.”
Less formally, members can request action through a “diffusion.” This type of request for assistance is sent directly from one country to others of its choosing. Although diffusions are also supposed to be subject to review, such review only occurs after a country submits it. Even if review subsequently rejects the merits of a diffusion, the nature of the system creates its own problems. Interpol doesn’t have control of what countries do with the requests, and copies of the request could persist in countries’ criminal databases even after deletion by Interpol.
Despite rules designed to prevent their misuse, mechanisms like Red Notices and diffusions have increasingly become tools of repressive regimes. In a hearing about autocratic abuse of Interpol, Rep. Joe Wilson decried the “dangerous” way countries like Russia “abuse their access to the International Criminal Police Organization or Interpol to issue bogus notices with the express intent to repress dissent against their own undemocratic regimes.” With allegations of criminal or terrorist activity, the Kremlin and others abuse Interpol to extend their reach. Often, Russia uses charges like financial crimes, which are “easy to make and hard to disprove,” to brand people criminals and gain assistance from international law enforcement.
Bill Browder is perhaps the most famous example of how the Kremlin abuses Interpol to silence its critics. The American-born British financier and economist, who lobbied Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, has long been a target of Russian Interpol harassment. The Kremlin requested Interpol action against Browder seven times. Browder lives in the shadow of potential Interpol action, a situation exemplified by his brief detainment by Spanish authorities in 2018. Browder described the Kremlin’s use of Interpol as “a perfect way for Putin to basically breathe the fear of God into all of his enemies.”
Putin’s use of foreign law enforcement isn’t confined to Spain. Russia’s abuse of Interpol has allowed it to co-opt police in democracies to its own oppressive ends. Abuse of Interpol has even made law enforcement in the United States complicit in these campaigns. Most notably, ICE has displayed a “disturbing pattern” of relying on Red Notices to identify people to arrest, a practice that risks “allowing Vladimir Putin to pick his victims in the United States.”
The United States is moving to check this abuse. In the wake of the hearing on Interpol abuse, Representatives Alcee Hastings and Joe Wilson introduced the TRAP Act to “tackle abuse of INTERPOL.” Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate. There is a variety of suggestions for how the United States can take further action to deter abuse. If TRAP fails to address Interpol abuse, these options should be pursued. Whether it’s through increasing statutory funding or working to suspend bad actors, the US must insulate its justice system from autocratic whims.