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FBI, Navy Join Negotiations for Pirates to Release Captain

April 9, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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After Wednesday's hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship, pirates continued to hold Capt. Richard Phillips hostage in a lifeboat adrift in the Indian Ocean. A Financial Times correspondent talks about the negotiations, including Navy and FBI involvement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story: The American captain of a cargo ship remained a hostage of Somali pirates today, adrift on a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean.

The U.S. Navy and FBI worked to secure his release. And General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, announced plans to immediately increase American military presence in the Horn of Africa.

Margaret Warner has our report.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. Navy said it had called on FBI hostage negotiators today to help free the captain of the freighter Maersk Alabama.

The U.S.-flagged ship, based in Norfolk, Virginia, was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia yesterday. Hours later, the 20 American crewmen overpowered the bandits.

But their captain, 53-year-old Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vermont, is being held hostage by four pirates in a small lifeboat.

A Navy destroyer, USS Bainbridge, is watching nearby. So are U.S. surveillance aircraft. The Maersk Alabama is now reported to be en route to Mombasa, Kenya.

At the State Department this morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about the standoff at the lifeboat.

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State: We are watching this very closely. Apparently, the lifeboat has run out of gas, and the Navy is there, right, Admiral?

MARGARET WARNER: Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke later, after he and Secretary Clinton met with their Australian counterparts.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: We are monitoring the situation, obviously, very closely. The safe return of the captain is the top priority. We obviously have a naval presence in the area and other assets. And we are obviously looking at our options, but, again, foremost in our minds is the safety of the captain.

First U.S.-flagged ship seized

Demetri Sevastopulo
The Financial Times
[T]he U.S. Navy has been talking to the pirates in the lifeboat. They have been assisted by FBI hostage negotiators.

MARGARET WARNER: Piracy and hostage-taking for ransom have been steadily increasing off the coast of East Africa. Fifteen vessels were seized just last month and 150 last year. Reportedly, more than a dozen ships and more than 250 crew members are still being held hostage.

But this is the first U.S.-flagged ship seized in this area or anywhere else. Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. will do whatever is necessary to protect American shipping interests.

ERIC HOLDER, Attorney General: There's not been an act of piracy, I think, against a United States vessel in hundreds of years. And so I'm not sure exactly what would happen, but we'll obviously do what we have to do to make sure that the maritime life of this nation is protected. We'll do whatever we have to do.

MARGARET WARNER: In the Somali capital, Mogadishu, the deputy prime minister condemned the attack.

HAJI ADAM IBBI, Deputy Prime Minister, Somalia: I'm glad to hear that the passengers actually managed to be released by themselves. And this is what the kidnappers deserved: to show -- to be seen actually that they are very weak, they are not brave people, they are not actually capable of actually having such like this kind of operation.

MARGARET WARNER: The ship had been bound for Kenya with a payload of food and other items for the World Food Programme. The ship's second-in-command, Captain Shane Murphy, spoke of the difficulty of defending against the piracy risk in an interview with Japan's NHK less than a month ago. He was teaching an anti-piracy course at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

SHANE MURPHY: Right now, each vessel is responsible for its own security. There is additional coalition ships in the area that are there to patrol. However, there's no telling when or where the attacks are going to happen.

And the amount of vessels that transit the area, it's impossible to patrol them all. All the vessels transiting the areas are on heightened watch capabilities. Everybody is prepared. They're putting up as much of a defense as they can. Yet they're still having an inordinate amount of success at hijacking the ships and, in turn, getting the money for ransom from the companies for the vessels and for the crew.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, in Vermont, Captain Phillip's relatives gathered to wait for news. His wife, Andrea, remained optimistic.

ANDREA PHILLIPS, Wife of Hostage: I always hoped that -- you know, you always hope, "Never me," or, "Not in my backyard," so to speak. But I have faith in my husband. And, you know, he's a smart man. And I know he'll be all right.

MARGARET WARNER: The Maersk Alabama and its crew are expected to arrive in Mombasa within 48 hours.

Military action is risky

Demetri Sevastopulo
The Financial Times
[I]f the Navy tried to launch some kind of an operation, even at night, I think it would be pretty easy for the pirates to tell it was coming and they could harm Capt. Phillips.

MARGARET WARNER: And for the latest on the standoff, we go to Demetri Sevastopulo, the Pentagon and intelligence correspondent for the Financial Times.

And, Demetri, thank you for joining us.

As we start, let me just share with you and our viewers a wire that just moved. The Maersk Company just put out a statement saying that the captain has actually made contact with the Navy and says he is unharmed and that apparently this Capt. Phillips has been provided with a radio and additional batteries and provisions, very unclear -- completely unclear how that happened.

So let me, with that in mind also, what is the latest you've heard about the state of negotiations, who's doing the negotiations, and where they stand?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO, Financial Times: Well, at the moment, what we've had today is the U.S. Navy has been talking to the pirates in the lifeboat. They have been assisted by FBI hostage negotiators, who are helping them in the background, although I believe from the U.S. over the phone.

And they are trying to work out, first of all, what the hostages -- excuse me, what the pirates actually want. And that's the first thing you have to determine in a situation like this.

MARGARET WARNER: And how are they communicating?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: We don't know exactly, but we're told that the Bainbridge is sufficiently close that they can see the lifeboat, so it could be by microphone. They could have contacted them by satellite phone or cell phones. These pirates have a lot of actually pretty sophisticated communication systems, including GPS devices.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what more can you tell us? There have been conflicting reports about how Captain Phillips found himself in this position. I think one family member said he actually volunteered to be sort of the designated hostage to free his crew. Have you been able to confirm that?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: No, we haven't. There are two conflicting accounts, basically. One is that he offered himself up to save the crew. The other is that the crew tried to overpower the pirates and the pirates then basically abandoned the Maersk Alabama, but took Capt. Phillips with them, got into the lifeboat, and that very soon after they left the area, they ran out of fuel. But we're not sure which is actually accurate.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, David Petraeus, General Petraeus, head of CENTCOM, as we just reported, said that additional U.S. military assets are being sent to the region. From people you talked to at the Pentagon, I mean, what are the military options? How seriously are they being looked at?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Well, they're obviously, first of all, going to send more destroyers and other kind of ships to the region just to boost up their capability.

The big problem they have is that they don't -- if they can possibly avoid it, they don't want to take military action because they're concerned about the life of Capt. Phillips.

And if you think about it, in a situation like the one we have at the moment, both the pirates and the Navy have perfect visibility at each other. So if the Navy tried to launch some kind of an operation, even at night, I think it would be pretty easy for the pirates to tell it was coming and they could harm Capt. Phillips.

So it's a very difficult situation, and I think military action is something that they will try and avoid at all possible.

Pirates running out of options

Demetri Sevastopulo
The Financial Times
[I]f you are four pirates in a small boat and you look around you and you see a USS Bainbridge, the destroyer, and other ships there, you probably don't feel very good.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, do they at least go so far as to talk with you about what scenarios would be? I mean, it seems as if a completely unequal situation on the one hand and, as Secretary Clinton said, the lifeboat seems to be running out of fuel, as well. And yet it's sort of a classic asymmetric standoff where it's hard to know who has the advantage.

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Well, it is a classic asymmetric standoff, but I think you'd have to say that at this point the U.S. military has the upper hand.

The pirates in the lifeboat apparently have enough food for several days. They've no gas so they can't go anywhere. One possible thing that could happen is that there are reports that other ships that have been hijacked by pirates and controlled by pirates are coming closer to the area.

But I talked to a defense official today who said that, if the pirates think they're going to have safety in numbers, it won't work, because the USS Bainbridge, the destroyer you talked about earlier, and the other American military assets in the region won't let them get close.

So at some point, the pirates are going to be faced in a real catch-22. What do they do? They really have no way of getting out of there.

MARGARET WARNER: There was an interesting quote today, in fact, from one of the pirates. I think Reuters reached them on a sat phone and he said something like, "We're surrounded by warships and don't have time to talk. Please pray for us." Is that consistent with what you're hearing about the atmospherics of this?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Well, I think, if you are four pirates in a small boat and you look around you and you see a USS Bainbridge, the destroyer, and other ships there, you probably don't feel very good.

And I have to say that the pirates, they may be hoping that their comrades come and rescue them. But if you're one of those comrades and you look ahead and see these American warships, you're probably less courageous than you are when you're tackling a cargo ship or some of the other ships that they're used to taking on. I think this has really raised the stakes in the whole battle in those seas.

Increased attacks may prompt action

Demetri Sevastopulo
The Financial Times
[O]ne defense official...said he thought it would be 24 hours, 48 hours before the pirates realized that they were in a no-win situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as we've reported, these attacks have just grown in incredible frequency. The Obama administration has actually been talking about piracy as recently as when President Obama went to the NATO summit about something that really had to be addressed.

Is there any kind of game plan in the works for -- whether it's patrolling the area more or something else -- to protect the merchant fleets better?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Well, you have to imagine that President Obama in his first couple of months has had a lot of things on his plate. Until a few weeks ago, there hadn't been that many attacks by pirates in the region. Partly because of the weather, the seas weren't conducive to that.

Now you're getting into a season where you're going to see more and more attacks, so I think it's really going to put this front and foremost on the radar for President Obama.

He also has to deal with two American journalists detained in North Korea. So he actually has several situations around the world where there are Americans being detained, sometimes as hostages, sometimes in other ways. So I think you're going to see a lot of focus on this in the days and months ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: And do the people you've been speaking with in the intelligence or in the Pentagon, the intelligence community, do they think that these pirates are in any way susceptible to any sort of political pressure from Somalia, even though, as we know, the situation's pretty lawless there?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: No, not any -- I've heard no one say anything like that. Basically, you have a government that has no power, transitional government. These pirates have been running amok for the last year-and-a-half or so. And because they keep getting ransoms paid, they have a lot of money to rearm themselves and probably to pay off people in the government when they need to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what's the betting inside about how long this is going to continue?

DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: I talked to one defense official this morning who said he thought it would be 24 hours, 48 hours before the pirates realized that they were in a no-win situation and it came to some kind of resolution, and he thought it would probably be peaceful.

MARGARET WARNER: Demetri Sevastopulo, thank you so much, from the Financial Times. Thanks for being with us.