Michael Steinbach thought he would be a short-timer as the FBI’s top agent in Miami.
In August, he became South Florida’s “acting” special agent in charge, thinking he would be around for a month. But the honchos in Washington, DC, wouldn’t let him leave the coveted position in Miami.
“I never pursued it,” said Steinbach, 46, who studied aerospace engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a naval aviator, before joining the FBI in 1995.
Steinbach, who was officially named the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami field office last month, came to South Florida by way of the bureau’s Jacksonville office, where he held the same position. In Miami, Steinbach replaces outgoing FBI SAC John Gillies, whose biggest case was the investigation of convicted Fort Lauderdale Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.
Steinbach is now in charge of more than 400 special agents whose territory runs from Key West to Fort Pierce — one of the busiest districts for federal crime in the nation. His domain also includes FBI legal attachés stationed in U.S. embassies throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.
Counterterrorism remains the bureau’s top priority in the post-9/11 era, he said.
But the FBI has committed greater resources in South Florida to health-care, tax-refund and financial-fraud scams that have exploded during the Internet age. Street gangs and drug traffickers have gravitated to those criminal areas, because they can exploit Medicare, the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies built on the “honor system.”
“Unfortunately, criminal groups take advantage of that,” Steinbach said during an interview Monday.
He also said that rapidly advancing technology has forced the FBI to “adjust fire” to deal with other fast-moving threats, especially combating the infiltration of organized crime networks from Eastern Europe, including the Russian mob.
But he said Miami’s FBI office also must remain vigilant about South Florida’s perennial problem of public corruption. “The FBI will never be able to walk away from that,” he said.
Currently, the office’s highest-profile target is former Republican Congressman David Rivera, suspected of secretly funneling campaign funds to a Democratic candidate who opposed Rivera’s longtime nemesis, Joe Garcia, in last year’s primary election.
The FBI is also making headlines with several arrests of Miami police officers on extortion, identity-theft and tax-fraud charges.
And although Cuba’s profile has changed in the post-Cold War world, Miami’s FBI still keeps an eye on the island nation. “I don’t know if I’d say it’s the problem it once was, but it remains a focus,” Steinbach said.
Then he added, without elaboration: “We’re concerned about Cuba’s relationship with China.”
Steinbach has risen quickly during his FBI career, working as a special agent or supervisor fighting violent crime and terrorism in the United States and abroad.
In Chicago, he started out in the Fugitive and Violent Crimes/ Major Offenders programs, and became a member of the FBI SWAT team.
In 2003 he was promoted to supervisor in the Counterterrorism Division at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he oversaw programs at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan. The following year, he was deployed to Afghanistan to serve as the deputy commander for FBI operations. He later received the FBI’s Shield of Bravery.
Steinbach continued his career overseas when he was appointed as the FBI’s legal attaché in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2006. He worked with the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority on FBI investigations involving national security issues.
He returned stateside in 2008 to run the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force at its field office in Washington.
Over the next couple of years, Steinbach was promoted to a series of management positions in the FBI’s Counterrorism Division.
He said the FBI’s No. 1 priority in Miami and nationwide is targeting home-grown terrorists — followed by suspicious recruits who travel overseas to train with terrorist groups with the goal of returning to the United States. He also said the FBI is rooting out domestic financial fronts that fund terrorist activity abroad, including last week’s conviction of a Miami imam who sent cash to the Pakistani Taliban.
“You have to continually maintain your trip wires” in the war on terror, he said.