The State Department official who issued visas to many of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists is still employed by the federal government, according to J. Michael Springmann, the author of Visas for al-Qaeda: CIA Handouts That Rocked the World.
Springmann, former head of the visa section at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, told PJM that Shayna Steinger approved 11 of the visas granted to the 19 9/11 hijackers. Fifteen received their visas at the Jeddah consulate.
Page 7 of the 9/11 Commission report states that “one consular officer issued visas to 11 of the 19 hijackers.” Those visas were reportedly approved between the years 1999 and 2001.
Springmann, an attorney who no longer works for the federal government, learned the State Department commissioned Steinger as a class four foreign service officer in 1999, which he said is “a high rank for someone hired just out of Columbia University with no prior experience.”
“Despite her issuing visas to terrorists and giving equivocal answers to the 9/11 Commission, Steinger is still an FSO,” Springmann wrote in his book.
She was appointed and confirmed by the Senate under the Clinton administration in 1999 as Shayna Steinger Singh in the Congressional Record, Volume 145.
Springmann said he was never given an official reason why he was fired by the State Department in 1991. He requested the documentation used to support the government’s decision but says he never received anything. To this day, he believes he was fired because he denied visas to individuals in Jeddah, Saudia Arabia, who submitted applications from 1987-1989 that raised red flags.
“The reason, to the best of my knowledge and belief, was that I had refused visas to unqualified applicants,” he told PJM. “I also questioned orders to approve them and had complained about this to officials in Riyadh at the embassy and again in Washington at the Bureau of Consular Affairs.”
According to Steinger’s LinkedIn page, she currently works for the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation as a foreign service officer. The page indicates that she earned her master’s degree at Columbia University and that she speaks Arabic.
Tom Countryman, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State, said the bureau’s “primary mission is to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, destabilizing conventional weapons, and related technologies. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper and not see some issue where the bureau has a role.”
PJM was unable to reach Steinger but a family member confirmed that she is currently working for the State Department overseas.
Joel Mowbray of the National Review had obtained some of the visa applications of the 9/11 hijackers in 2002 and concluded that each one contained red flags that should have resulted in a denial, such as missing destination addresses in the U.S. and listing no occupation.
For example, Abdulaziz al-Omari left the name of the school blank on his application and Wail al-Shehri claimed his occupation was “teater.”
“Khalid Al Mihdhar, who helped crash the plane into the Pentagon, simply listed ‘Hotel’ as his U.S. destination — no name, no city, no state — but no problem getting a visa,” said an ABC News report about the State Department lapses that helped the hijackers enter the U.S.
It is not clear if any of the applicants other than future hijacker Hani Hanjour were called in for interviews. He reportedly changed the duration of his stay from 3 years (2 years was the legal limit) to 1 year and was approved by Steinger.
“All a Saudi needs to prove is he is a Saudi,” a consular official said in 2003, according to a State Department Inspector General “memorandum of conversation.” The name of the official is redacted from the report but Springmann said his sources have confirmed Steinger was the official interviewed. The State Department IG office said the document was likely obtained via a FOIA request but declined to comment on Steinger.
In the report, the official Springmann identifies as Steinger mentioned that Saudis were not required to show supporting documents like employer letters or bank statements for their visa applications at the time. U.S. tourist visa applicants are typically required to prove financial stability.
“Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa, that he is entitled to non-immigrant status,” according to the Immigration and Nationality Act.
In other words, the burden of proof for entry to the U.S. with a visa is on the applicant. The applicant must convince the officer that he or she intends to return to their home country after a temporary stay in the United States and that he or she can afford to pay for the entire trip without unauthorized employment in the U.S.
Tom Eldridge, counsel to the 9/11 Commission, told PJM he was responsible for investigating how the 9/11 terrorists got into the country and how they stayed long enough to be able to carry out the attacks. He did not recall specific names of the consular officers he interviewed for the commission’s report but said some questions related to the visas remain unanswered.
“What I would tell you is I remember we heard a consistent story, right, which was that Saudis were given visas to come to the U.S. really without any difficulty and very little scrutiny. And you know, I think one of the things we tried to bring out in the report was the contradiction between that policy and some of the security concerns they had around the very area where they were issuing these visas,” he said. “We were just trying to probe into that, you know, how is it that there was this view that somehow Saudi nationals posed no security risk to the U.S. yet you had significant security concerns there around your embassy? I don’t know that we ever got a satisfactory answer to that.”
Steinger apparently stayed in Jeddah after Sept. 11, 2001, and indicated that the pre-9/11 visa requirements had not changed. The 2003 report said that the consular official wondered out loud if she had “already issued visas since September 11th to the next bunch of terrorists.”
In 2013, the Department of Homeland Security faced criticism for extending “trusted traveler” status to Saudi Arabia, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
According to a DHS press release, then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef “signed an arrangement to begin implementation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s trusted traveler program, Global Entry, in Saudi Arabia, and initiate discussions to establish a reciprocal program.” DHS said the program “streamlines the screening process at airports for trusted travelers, allowing customs authorities to focus on those travelers they know less about, in order to more effectively identify potential threats and keep our borders and country secure.”
When asked how he feels knowing Steinger still works in the federal government, Springmann said, “I’m damn mad, I’m irritated and I think it supports my decision to publish the book and try to get the word out in any way, shape or form I can.”
Springmann said some action should have been taken against Steinger and any other U.S. officials who approved the hijackers’ visas.
“In an ideal world, the least punishment would have been to pull you off the visa line and send you back to Washington for proper training, an attitude adjustment, maybe,” he said. “I think that goes on up depending on what was done and how it was done to really bad efficiency reports that would pretty much stall your career in the State Department — or maybe jail, or getting kicked out right away.”
Springmann participated in a book discussion and signing earlier this month at Busboys and Poets in Washington. He remains concerned that U.S. visas could be issued to bad actors in the future and has plans to hold more public events related to his book.
“I had thought that my loud complaints to various sections of the U.S. government and my writings had stopped the process,” he said. “But, having looked at what’s been going on since State fired me, I would say that nothing’s changed.”