U.S. hopes piracy case can be solved without military force

WASHINGTON – The piracy crisis over a lone hostage in the Indian Ocean took on the familiar air of a cops-and-robbers standoff, with the U.S. Navy seeking advice yesterday from seasoned FBI negotiators. Their goal: Resolve the incident without military force. As the FBI joined the delicate negotiations, President Barack Obama, facing one of his first national security tests, declined comment when asked about the standoff. Vice President Joe Biden said the administration was working ’round the clock’ on the problem. The incident epitomizes the limits of U.S. power in an age of increasing threat from violence-minded, faceless groups and individuals. Attorney General Eric Holder said ‘we’ll obviously do what we have to do to make sure that the maritime life of this nation is protected.’ FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the bureau’s hostage negotiating team as ‘fully engaged’ with the military in strategizing ways to retrieve the ship’s captain and secure the Maersk Alabama and its roughly 20-person U.S. crew. The FBI was summoned as the Pentagon substantially stepped up its monitoring of the hostage standoff, sending in P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and other equipment and securing video footage of the scene. The pirates were still holding the 55-year-old Phillips, from Underhill, Vt., after the American crew retook the ship Wednesday and the hostage-takers fled into the lifeboat. Hostage negotiators and military officials have been working around the clock to free Phillips. The FBI is considered the negotiating arm of the U.S. government for international incidents. The crisis negotiation team has been dispatched to more than 100 incidents worldwide since 1990, according to the bureau. The unit, whose motto is ‘resolution through dialogue’ is based at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., about 40 miles south of Washington. ‘We’re deeply concerned and we’re following it very closely,’ Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. ‘More generally, the world must come together to end the scourge of piracy.’ The pirate-hostage drama was the first of its kind in modern history involving a U.S. crew. ‘We have watched with alarm the increasing threat of piracy,’ said Denis McDonough, a senior foreign policy adviser at the White House. ‘The administration has an intense interest in the security of navigation.’ The Bainbridge was among several U.S. ships, including the cruiser USS Gettysburg, that had been patrolling in the region. But they were about 345 miles and several hours away when the Maersk Alabama was seized, officials said. The Obama administration has so far done no better than its predecessor to thwart the growing threat of piracy. Since January, pirates have staged 66 attacks, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There is too much area to cover and too many commercial vessels to protect for full-time patrols or escorts. U.S. legal authority is limited, even in the case of American hostages and a cargo of donated American food. And the pirates, emboldened by fat ransoms, have little reason to fear being caught. ‘The military component here is always going to be marginal,’ said Peter Chalk, an expert on maritime national security at the private Rand Corp. According to the Navy, it would take 61 ships to control the shipping route in the Gulf of Aden, which is just a fraction of the 1.1 million square miles where the pirates have operated. A U.S.-backed international anti-piracy coalition currently has 12 to 16 ships patrolling the region at any one time. Along the Somali coastline, an area roughly as long as the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, pirate crews have successfully held commercial ships hostage for days or weeks until they are ransomed. In the past week, pressured by naval actions off Somalia, the pirates have shifted their operations farther out into the Indian Ocean, expanding the crisis.