Michael Springmann served in the United States government at the Commerce Department and as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, with postings in Germany, India, and Saudi Arabia.
He left federal service and currently practices law in the Washington, DC, area. He holds a JD from American University, in Washington, DC, as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees in international relations from Georgetown University and the Catholic University of America. In 2004, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee recognized Springmann as one of its Pro Bono Attorneys of the Year. In February 2015 he published Visas for Al Qaeda: CIA Handouts That Rocked the World at Daena Publications.
Lars Schall: Mike, you’ve published a book recently, and its title is, “Visas for Al Qaeda: CIA Handouts That Rocked the World.” The book deals with your personal experiences as the chief of the visa section at the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. First of all, how did you end up there?
Michael Springmann: Well, that’s what I sort of wondered myself: when I joined the State Department after assignments with the Foreign Commercial Service and the State-Commerce Exchange Program which provided Washington assignments for State Department officials and foreign assignments for civil servants at the Commerce Department, we were bidding on various positions around the world based on our knowledge, our experience, our language skills, and so forth, and I picked a number of places, East Berlin was one of them, some places in Africa and in India, and I don’t know where else, but Saudi Arabia was never on my list of places I wanted to be sent. And yet, the day they were passing out the assignments I was given the green flag of Saudi Arabia and traveled there as the chief of the visa section at the American General Consulate in Jeddah in the Hejaz in Western Saudi Arabia.
And when I asked the guy who was running the educational program called A-100, which introduced new Foreign Service officers to the State Department and the rest of the American government, I said, John Tacik, what exactly was going on, because I’ve been told by my career development officer the woman who supposedly would guide my career at the State Department that I was going to be sent to East Berlin, because the European bureau wanted me there. And the way the State Department works, the European bureau is primus inter pares: what the European bureau wants the European bureau gets. So I was flabbergasted. And he didn’t know either. I went to one of the people who conducted some of these educational sessions, whose name regrettably I don’t remember, and asked him. Well, he said, they wanted someone a little bit older, they wanted someone with commercial experience, Jeddah is a major mercantile hub in the kingdom, and they thought you would be perfect for the job. That didn’t answer my question and probably raised a few more so that I would later wonder about that answer.
LS: Actually you ended up there in Jeddah. What happened when you worked there as the chief of the visa section at the US Consulate between 1987 and 1989?
JMS: Let me tell you, giving you some background on this, I was in language training in Arabic and area studies, learning about what Saudi Arabia and the Middle East is like, giving you background on culture and things like this and I get a call from one of the State Department’s desk officers for Saudi Arabia, these are people that follow the political, economic, commercial, and social interest in a country to kind of, they kind of like ambassadors from the host country to Washington, they interpret the given country to the rest of the State Department, and the guy said, the American ambassador Walter Cutler was in town and did I want to want to meet him and I said, yes, sure. And I figured, it just was a hello and good bye session that would last about five minutes, Hi, I get to go to Jeddah, join your official family and so forth. Well, he kept me there for 45 minutes, talking about all the problems my predecessor Greta Holtz had created for the embassy in Riyadh. She was not issuing visas to servants of all these rich Saudi women who couldn’t travel without hair dressers and seamstresses and other factotums.