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Behind The Mystique: Tour Interpol Washington

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You often hear about Interpol in movies like "Zoolander 2." Penelope Cruz, in that movie, helps the title character solve a murder mystery.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZOOLANDER 2")

PENELOPE CRUZ: (As Valentina Valencia) Derek Zoolander, I'm with Interpol. Global fashion division.

BEN STILLER: (As Derek Zoolander) She's hot.

GREENE: OK (laughter). In real life, though, the law enforcement agency largely remains behind the scenes. But NPR's Carrie Johnson recently got a tour of Interpol's office here in the nation's capital.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Interpol Washington occupies the 12th floor of a glassy and unremarkable office building. The men and women who work in its 24-hour command center sit under clocks that represent time zones from Beijing and Los Angeles to Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France.

GEOFFREY SHANK: Everything is transnational.

JOHNSON: Geoffrey Shank is director of the office. He used to run the U.S. Marshals program for nabbing fugitives. At Interpol, history dates back more than a century. These days, Shank says, 190 member countries share information to help find criminals on the lam.

SHANK: It's universal that individuals don't want violent, predatory criminals in their countries. And if you can share information on a law enforcement-sensitive level through Interpol and rid your country of these offenders, why wouldn't you do it?

JOHNSON: Interpol issues Red Notices - be on the lookout warnings about accused drug lords and foreign terrorist fighters on the move, like this one last year from Canada.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORD GILLIES: Twenty-two-year-old Farah Shirdon is now on Interpol's most wanted list.

JOHNSON: Interpol uses alerts named after other colors to find people who are missing or identify foreign nationals who may be dead. Members can search its databases for fingerprints or sift through millions of records on lost passports and travel IDs. Here in the command center at Interpol Washington, Shank says workers sift through 30,000 messages a month - communications from member nations.

SHANK: The messages could be anywhere from assisting with a suicide in progress to information on a terrorist who's traveling into the United States.

JOHNSON: The goal, he says, is to speed the flow of information to U.S. law enforcement and international counterparts. Like all big systems, the value of that data is only as good as the police on the front lines who can see it. That's why Interpol is working to get the information into the right hands overseas and pushing other countries to get connected. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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