The mere mention of INTERPOL evokes the aura of international intrigue and the images associated with James Bond and Mission Impossible-type movies. While Hollywood cinematically glamorizes the artful and technologically advanced manner in which their characters fight crime on the international stage, INTERPOL, the organization, actually exists and operates on a much lower, but no less dramatic profile when it comes to the high-stakes game of taking down the world’s most wanted criminals and terrorists.
According to Wayne Salzgaber, acting director of INTERPOL Washington, INTERPOL is not what people see in the movies. Instead, INTERPOL performs an extremely critical role in coordinating and promoting cooperation among the police agencies of the 190 member nations that are working on the front lines to combat transnational crime and terrorism.
The United States has been a member of INTERPOL, which is an abbreviation for the International Criminal Police Organization, since 1947. INTERPOL Washington is the U.S. National Central Bureau, a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agency that is co-managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and serves as the nation’s connection to the INTERPOL organization and its other member countries on behalf of the U.S. law enforcement community. So, how did Salzgaber make his way to the Director’s Office of INTERPOL Washington? It was a long road, with many different assignments, enabling him to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to prepare him for this challenging role.
After completing high school in North Carolina, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Many of his family members served in the military, and he was eager to enter public service. In addition, the USCG mission of search and rescue, as well as maritime law enforcement, appealed to him. After joining the USCG in 1989, he initially served on the USCG Cutter Harriet Lane, completing multiple law enforcement and humanitarian patrols in the South Atlantic and Caribbean.
Along the way, Salzgaber married, and his wife, who is a teacher, encouraged him to go back to school and get his bachelor’s degree. At this point in his career, in the mid-1990s, he was a staff instructor at the USCG’s Maritime Law Enforcement School in Yorktown, VA, and Saint Leo offered classes nearby at Fort Eustis. “It was challenging to balance my day job and my classes,” he recalled. “But it was a great environment. The instructors understood the demands of the military, and the staff and the course offerings were flexible. The whole experience couldn’t have been better.”
Earning a degree in criminology (which he obtained in 2000 magna cum laude) had a direct influence on his career, and in 1997 he was recruited to be a special agent for the Coast Guard Investigative Service. He remained on active duty until 2001, when he transferred to the federal civil service as a special agent for the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the nation was attacked on September 11, 2001, and the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003, Salzgaber was selected to join the newly formed department to establish its Office of Inspector General (OIG). He served in many assignments at DHS OIG, first as senior special agent, then as special agent in charge, and later being appointed to the Senior Executive Services as a deputy assistant inspector general for investigations, in charge of the agency’s investigative field operations division.
“It is hard work, and INTERPOL Washington is about a group of dedicated people working long hours coordinating efforts and exchanging critical information with our foreign counterparts to stem the tide of transnational crime and terrorism.”
In the meantime, Salzgaber went back to the USCG and joined the USCG Reserve in 2003, receiving a commission in the Reserve Officer Corps, and remained active until his retirement in 2010. Prior to his retirement from the Reserve, he was recalled to activity duty to be part of the USCG’s Unified Area Command following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. He remembers long days spent in efforts to secure the well in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2012, Salzgaber was tapped to be the DHS advisor to the director of INTERPOL Washington. Three years later, he was appointed deputy director. Only a year after that, in 2016, the sitting director from DOJ decided to retire early and step down, leaving two years in his DOJ-appointed term. Since the DOJ and DHS rotate the directorship of INTERPOL Washington every three years, Salzgaber was appointed to serve as acting director for the remaining two-year DOJ term, after which he will assume the DHS three-year term as director of the agency in 2018. “The co-management of the agency and the multi-jurisdictional workforce is a unique and positive aspect of INTERPOL Washington,” he explained. “We have agents, officers, and analysts assigned to the agency from the FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and others all working together to assist in international law enforcement information sharing, counterterrorism, and border security operations.”
Over the years, Salzgaber remembers many successes, including “good cases, justice for victims, and avoided catastrophes.” In today’s “charged environment,” he said that INTERPOL Washington is working hard every day to protect the United States. “It isn’t like the movies,” he reiterated. “It is hard work, and INTERPOL Washington is about a group of dedicated people working long hours coordinating efforts and exchanging critical information with our foreign counterparts to stem the tide of transnational crime and terrorism. We can often obtain vital information from our foreign law enforcement partners that you might not get through diplomatic channels. We work behind the scenes, doing our jobs to protect the public and securing our borders.”
What advice does he have for college students or young alumni who want to enter public service? “Be patient. Be prepared to start at the bottom and get the necessary experience to be successful. Public service is not for everyone, so do your research. Your career is not a sprint, but a marathon. Also, the hours are long, and there is a lot of responsibility, so be sure your family is ready for it. Your whole family is serving.”
As for his family, Salzgaber and his wife have been married for nearly 25 years and have raised three children. “She got used to my deployments,” he said. “And the 2 a.m. phone calls.”
Looking back, Salzgaber credits Saint Leo for helping him prepare for his career and for “getting the next generation ready. We need more institutions like Saint Leo.”