As correspondent Steve Kroft explains, their real job is behind the scenes, collecting and disseminating information to law enforcement agencies all over the world, and until Ron Noble became the first American to ever run the global police organization, it played almost no role in fighting terrorism. Noble has been trying to change all that since the day he took over seven years ago, less than a year before Sept. 11th changed the world.
Asked if his phone rang off the hook after the 9/11 attacks, Noble tells Kroft, "The only call I got was from my brother to tell me to turn the television on just in time for me to see the second plane fly in to the building. And I promised myself, and I promised my staff that that would never happen again. It would never be that a terrorist attack would occur anywhere in the world and we wouldn't be called."
"Why did nobody call, do you think?" Kroft asks.
Says Noble, "We were irrelevant."
When he was nominated by President Clinton to become the first non-European secretary general of Interpol, Noble was one of the top law enforcement administrators in the U.S.: undersecretary of the Department of the Treasury, in charge of the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
He was ambitious, tireless and spoke four languages, the perfect choice to shake up what was considered a lethargic European bureaucracy, based in Lyon, France, a city known for famous chefs and some of the finest restaurants in the world. And walking through Lyon, it's easy to see why Interpol became known for long lunches and long weekends, not long days at the office.
"When you came here it had the reputation of sort of being a retirement home for police officers," Kroft remarks. "Was it open on the weekends?"
"It wasn't open on the weekends. And if you had a request for assistance at five o'clock on Friday, you'd have to wait until Monday morning for someone to respond to it," Noble recalls.
That has all changed. The lights at Interpol are on now around the clock, seven days a week. The international wanted posters, called "red notices," once sent out by third class mail to 186 countries, often took months to arrive. Now they leave Lyon in a matter of seconds on a secure Internet channel. And the Morse code tower, used into the 1980s, has been replaced by a state-of-the-art police communication system that allows countries instant access to a global database of fingerprints, mug shots, DNA samples and stolen travel documents.
Its mission is to give operational support to police departments around the world, by exchanging intelligence, tracking fugitives, and providing language and legal assistance in fighting crimes that cross international borders. Its staff is made up of police officers on loan from 58 different countries.
It's not glamorous work, but last year Interpol played a role in 4,500 arrests, including a war criminal from the former Yugoslavia and an al Qaeda terrorist connected to the Madrid train bombing.
Noble believes Interpol is capable of doing much more. "Al Qaeda has said they want to kill four million of us. So I'm asking myself, 'What do we need? What does it take?' What will it take for governments to say, 'You know what? Forget the past. If Interpol didn't exist today, we'd invent it. How would we invent it? How creative would we be?'" he says.
Noble says the world has changed drastically over the past decade, and along with it the nature of international crime.
It used to be that if someone committed a crime in Chicago, they stayed in Chicago, or at least in the United States. Today, they can get on a plane and commit the same crime in a number of different countries before anyone even notices. In fact, they don't even have to get on a plane. Someone with a computer in Lagos, Nigeria, can drain a bank account in London without even leaving his house.
"The Internet is police-able. It's police-able in the classical sense of the word, and we should be doing that," says Mick Moran, a 15-year veteran of the Garda, the Irish national police.
Moran joined Interpol last year to investigate international sex crimes against children. He tries to identify the country where the actual crime is taking place and then he passes on the information to the appropriate jurisdiction for further investigation.
"People call them child pornography. But that's a bad thing to call them, because it's actually a picture of a crime scene. And as an investigator, I examine the crime scene," Moran says.
Moran says he is "looking for anything that might give me a clue as to what country this comes from."
"That's what cyber cops do," he says.
Asked if he is a cyber cop, Moran tells Kroft, "We're cyber cops, yeah. Without a doubt, we're cyber cops. And one of the most horrific cyber crimes … these sex abusers, they use the Internet … and they turn it into a shadow land."
What does he mean by shadow land?
"Shadow lands. It's the dark side of the Internet. Because the Internet, don't forget, and a lot of people forget this, the Internet simply reflects society. It simply reflects the world we live in," Moran says. "And that world has good and that world has evil."