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Combating Piracy Poses New Challenge for U.S. Ships

April 13, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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President Obama vowed Monday to halt the rise of piracy as details emerged about the rescue of a U.S. sea captain. Analysts weigh how to best protect U.S. ships from pirates.

GWEN IFILL: Our lead story: More details emerged today about the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips and the killing of his three pirate captors by U.S. Navy SEAL snipers off the coast of Somalia.

Phillips’ rescue also brought a warning from President Obama to other would-be pirates operating in the Horn of Africa.

Ray Suarez has more.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to take a moment to say how pleased I am about the rescue of Captain Phillips and his safe return to the USS Boxer this weekend.

RAY SUAREZ: The morning after the rescue, the president praised the operation and the man it freed. He said Captain Phillips’ safety was the “principal concern.”

BARACK OBAMA: I am very proud of the efforts of the U.S. military and many other departments and agencies that worked tirelessly to resolve this situation.

I share our nation’s admiration for Captain Phillips’ courage and leadership and selfless concern for his crew.

And I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of privacy in that region. And to achieve that goal, we’re going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.

RAY SUAREZ: Phillips was held for five days. The killings of his captors led to vows of vengeance from pirates operating in the waters off the lawless East African nation of Somalia. More than a dozen ships with 230 sailors held hostage remain under their control in the area.

The ship Phillips captains, the freighter Maersk Alabama, was attacked last Wednesday and held for a short time before its crew repelled the bandits. Phillips was taken in a botched prisoner exchange with the pirates.

The pirates were killed with three single shots from the fantail of the USS Bainbridge, a Navy destroyer that had towed the small lifeboat holding Phillips to within 90 feet of its stern.

The Navy’s elite special operators had parachuted into the area Saturday evening, landing in the ocean and swimming to the Bainbridge.

Rear Admiral Michelle Howard is aboard the USS Boxer, where Phillips was taken immediately following his rescue. She heads Task Force 151, a coalition of naval vessels combating piracy in the area.

REAR ADM. MICHELLE HOWARD, U.S. Navy: This is one of most challenging situations I have encountered in my time in the Navy, and I’ve been in 27 years. There’s a translator onboard. We had the captain of the Bainbridge pretty much working as the hostage negotiator. And we were getting tremendous support from FBI folks back stateside.

RAY SUAREZ: I asked the admiral if she thought yesterday’s direct action against the pirates would make it harder to deal with their comrades in the future.

REAR ADM. MICHELLE HOWARD: Yes, sir. That it is quite possible that we will have some emotional responses from the pirates.

As time goes on, that may be tempered by reality. They will increase their vigilance. And the other point is, after today, they should have second thoughts about taking on American ships and kidnapping American citizens.

ANDREA PHILLIPS, husband of Richard Phillips: So it’s not going to come out very loud.

RAY SUAREZ: Late today, a hoarse and happy Andrea Phillips greeted reporters near the home she shares with her husband, Richard, in Vermont. A written statement thanked the president, the Navy, and all the people who supported her and her husband through five difficult days.

The Maersk Alabama docked Saturday in Mombasa, Kenya, its original destination. The ship’s crew, which last night celebrated their captain’s release, had a far more direct message today.

Shane Murphy is the boat’s second-in-command.

SHANE MURPHY, chief mate, Maersk Alabama: There are ships still being taken right now as we’re standing here. And at sea, it’s a global community. It doesn’t come down to nations. There’s a whole world out there at sea that we — we live together. We look out for each other.

America has to be at the forefront of this. It’s time for us to step in and put an end to this crisis. It’s a crisis. Wake up. This crew was lucky to be out of it with every one of us alive. We’re not going to be that lucky again.

Protecting U.S. ships

RAY SUAREZ: The piracy plaguing the waters off Somalia is a symptom of the wider chaos in the East African nation.

Democratic Congressman Donald Payne, chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa, was in Somalia today for meetings with the country's president and prime minister. As he left Somalia, mortars were fired at his plane, but the congressman escaped uninjured. An Islamist group called Al-Shabaab, loosely affiliated with al-Qaida, claimed responsibility.

We get two views on protecting U.S. merchant ships from pirates. Peter Fromuth served in the State Department during the Clinton administration. Stephen Rademaker was in the State Department during the Bush administration.

Peter Fromuth, why don't you follow up what the admiral had to say? I'll ask you as I asked her whether this action by the Americans over the weekend, by the French last week to retake one of their vessels, in which pirates were killed in both actions, does it raise the cost, raise the risk for them on the seas?

PETER FROMUTH, former State Department official: I think clearly it raised the cost this time. It raised the cost last week. It raised the cost when the Indians acted last fall. It raised the cost when the Danes did, too.

I think, however, we need to draw a line here. The U.S. has acted with great restraint, has moved very reluctantly to the use of force. And we've done that because, by and large, the pirates have not taken life. And as long as they do not take life, I think it's going to be prudent on both sides not to continue with the use of force.

So to answer your question, I think it makes very clear to the pirates that, if they do step across that line and apply force or appear to be about to use force imminently, then we are going to move into much more dangerous waters for the pirates.

RAY SUAREZ: Stephen Rademaker, now that the pirates may be getting the idea that they're more likely to die in these actions, might they be more willing to take life?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER, former State Department official: I don't really buy the idea that these pirates got into this business thinking it was a safe profession. I think one becomes a pirate understanding that it's a high-risk proposition, that in exchange for running considerable risks, there are potentially great rewards.

And for the pirates to discover that some of their fellows have been killed should come as no surprise to any of them. I don't think what has happened will have much of a deterrent effect on them in the future. I think this is just for them one of the costs of doing business.

But let's bear in mind, they have been collecting millions and millions of dollars in ransom from these ships, and this in one of the poorest countries on Earth. So for them, the risk-reward ratio I don't think is much changed by what happened yesterday.

Arming merchant ships

RAY SUAREZ: What about the ships themselves? I think when Americans' attention was focused on the Maersk Alabama, a lot of people realized for the first time that these ships were only very lightly armed and lightly defended. Should that change?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, it may have to in certain parts of the world, such as off the coast of Somalia, where there's been a breakdown in law and order on the territory of Somalia and so pirates are free to operate off-shore.

For the last century or so, except during wartime, our merchant ships have been able to travel without arming themselves. Historically, that was not the case. Merchant ships were often armed. And it may be become necessary, should this problem persist, to resort to that kind of practice in dangerous waters, such as the ones we have off Somalia today.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Fromuth, is that a good idea?

PETER FROMUTH: I don't think so, no. I think you're very close to a slippery slope once you start arming. If the ship carries a couple of security guards with automatic weapons, your pirates are going to bring double that number with double the strength.

If they have sort of light weapons, the pirates will always have heavier weapons. The pirates' capacity to escalate given that they have a treasury somewhere between $40 million and $80 million is very, very considerable.

Secondly, it's unwise to have a firefight on a deck of a craft which is often carrying volatile, highly explosive material. And the results could be catastrophic. You could have a catastrophic oil spill out in the Indian Ocean or you could have a major loss of life. Remember, we have had very little loss of life.

And, thirdly, from the insurer's point of view, I think it's probably a calculated choice to -- if you're looking at a cargo that's maybe worth $100 million and you're looking at the potential for having to pay a ransom, a bounty, of $750,000 or $1 million or $2 million, versus losing the entire cargo, that's not a difficult choice to make.

So the insurers are probably, I would guess, going to be unwilling to see the arming of their insured craft.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, I don't think we're going to eradicate piracy off the coast of Somalia by being nice to the pirates. I think we're going to have to be forceful with the pirates. Just because it may be dangerous to use firearms on certain ships doesn't mean it's dangerous to use firearms or have firearms present on all ships. Container ships, there's probably little risk of something exploding because of a stray shot hitting a container.

I think it's important to bear in mind that this is more than just an economic question. I mean, perhaps for the insurance companies it's an economic question, but just using the numbers that you threw out, that, you know, $40 million to $80 million in the hands of pirates, which they have available to acquire weapons.

This is -- al-Qaida is present in Somalia. With this kind of money flowing into that kind of country, into the hands of lawless elements, we have to worry about terrorists deciding they want to get a piece of the action.

The U.N. Security Council has gone to enormous lengths to stop the flow of money to terrorist groups. There's an entire series of Security Council resolutions, a U.N. committee all set up to stop the flow of money to terrorist groups.

And here in Somalia, we have suitcases full of money being handed to pirates who -- you know, it's inevitable, because terrorists are also present in the country, that there will be some combination of effort at some point. And it will absolutely frustrate the international efforts to dry up terrorist financing for cash to be handed over, as it's been in Somalia.

Beginning of a crisis

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get a quick response from you, because you heard the second-in-command of the Maersk Alabama call this a crisis and say that the world better wake up. Do you agree this is a crisis?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: I think we're at the beginning of a crisis. If something is not done about it, yes, it will absolutely be a crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Fromuth?

PETER FROMUTH: Just a few points to Steve's note. Regardless of whether we're talking a volatile cargo, if you have a container ship and you have a handful of guys, it's important to remember that the typical attack is a pod of pirates, 7 to 12.

They will always have -- unless you're talking about attacking the Indian navy -- they're always going to have an escalation advantage. So even if you don't have an explosion, you're going to have dead people on your deck, your dead crew, your dead protectors. Not a good thing.

Secondly, maybe your sources are better, Steve, than mine, but the folks I talk to in the security community and the Defense Department and the intelligence community continue to affirm that there is no evidence of Qaida in Somalia.

They do talk about -- and this is covered in the press -- Qaida links between some of the personnel in Shabaab and some of the events in the '90s. But in terms of operational relationships, they're out of it.

Thirdly, I think there really are a number of things you can do short of treating this as a new sort of -- a new occasion for the use of massive force.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, but might it mean eventually going ashore? Will a strictly ocean-based response to piracy work?

PETER FROMUTH: Ray, I think on-shore action cannot be ruled out. The Security Council, in fact, authorized it last December at our urging. In fact, it was unanimous last December.

But as Admiral Gortney, in fact, indeed, the commander of the fleet in the area, has emphasized, you go on shore either from the air or on foot, you will have the challenge of distinguishing your pirates from your non-piratical innocent civilians.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get a quick response to that same question from Stephen Rademaker.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: I wouldn't rule out the option, but, you know, we tried peacekeeping in Somalia in the early 1990s. It didn't work out well for us.

The U.N. has been trying to recruit an international peacekeeping force to go into Somalia in recent months. There are no takers. No one's interested in doing it.

I think there are options off-shore that may be equally effective in the absence of re-establishing the authority of the central government. It's possible to blockade ports.

It's possible to set up quarantines where boats moving in and out of the ports are inspected and ones that are clearly pirate vessels, because they're carrying small arms and the kinds of things that fishermen don't need, they can be dealt with by those running the quarantine.

RAY SUAREZ: OK, I have to stop it there. Stephen Rademaker, Peter Fromuth, gentlemen, thank you both.