A Look Inside Interpol in Washington

By Christopher Snow Hopkins

March 7, 2013

Few Americans have a sense for the International Criminal Police Organization, better known as Interpol, beyond the depiction of swashbuckling agents in movies like Lord of War. In one scene from the 2005 film, a character played by Ethan Hawke, outfitted in Interpol paraphernalia, ambushes an international gunrunner, shouting, “Let me see your papers!”

“The biggest challenge is trying to overcome the pop-culture version of Interpol,” said Shawn A. Bray, who was installed last October as the new director of Interpol Washington, the U.S. National Central Bureau. “There are no Interpol agents. It's actually a partnership of [existing] law-enforcement agencies, so it has no authority in any country.”

Not only does Interpol Washington have no enforcement capability, but it has been something of an orphan since the United States became a full member of Interpol in 1947. Among its foster parents: the Justice Department, the Treasury Department, and, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Department. Since 2003, the latter two have shared custody of the U.S. National Central Bureau, switching off every three years.

For Bray, a typical day consists of processing Red Notices—which advise law-enforcement agencies in 190 member countries to be on the lookout for international fugitives—and representing the interests of state, local, and tribal law-enforcement agencies to their counterparts overseas. Interpol is a clearinghouse for information on kingpins, terrorists, and other malevolent actors who cross international borders.

“Prior to 9/11, Interpol was not a 24/7 organization,” Bray said. “It actually had office hours, and then they went dark…. It used to be that issuing an international lookout, a Red Notice, would take months and was a very laborious process. If you were lucky, you were faxing documents back and forth. Now we see notices issued out of the U.S. within a matter of two or three hours. In two or three hours, 190 member countries are all looking.”

Raised outside St. Louis, Bray attended what is now Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. He started his career in law enforcement as a special agent assigned to the U.S. Customs Service’s Office of Investigations in Arizona.

After the Customs Service merged with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 2003, Bray rose through the ranks of the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement, eventually serving as a Homeland Security investigations operations chief responsible for the Southeast region. Before becoming director of Interpol Washington, he spent three years as the agency’s deputy director.

After hours, the 47-year-old can be found straddling a hog. “My motorcycle [a Harley Davidson Road King] is a big touring bike without all the bells and whistles,” he said. “What I like is the fact that there’s no radio or anything else on there. It’s just a large motorcycle with a large engine. It gives you a chance to get away from some of the noise and out on the road.”

This article appeared in the Thursday, March 7, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.

By Christopher Snow Hopkins

March 7, 2013