Members of the US House of Congress Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, have been meeting to address the U.S. response to piracy.
During the hearing, a common concern amongst the five or so congressmen assembled was that pirates are linking up with terrorists groups. But just about every witness, including envoys from the Coast Guard, Dept. of Defense, State Dept. and Government Accountability Office, reiterated that there’s no intelligence to really back that up. Witnesses also pointed out that pirates and what Americans might traditionally think of as terrorist groups have a fundamental difference: The kidnap-and-ransom game appears to be the only one pirates are playing, which means simple money, rather than complex ideology, is at the heart of their motivation.
In terms of more substantiated worries, witness William Weschler, who works on global threats for the DoD, gave a good rundown of the current problems in curbing the increase in piracy:
–Somalia is poor and unstable — Rep. Andy Harris took the harder line of saying they have “no government” — and its stability is key.
–The geographic area that pirates appear to be roaming these days is vast, about the size of the contiguous U.S., and all the navies of all the world put together can’t effectively patrol that much high sea — according to the DoD — especially without better intelligence than they currently have. Meanwhile, the number of overall attacks is on the rise. According to Weschler’s testimony, Somali pirates are currently holding 28 vessels and 600 crew members from various countries hostage.
–The prosecution of pirates is difficult. Jurisdiction is tricky, and stakeholder countries are often unwilling or unable to put them through their court systems. Out of an estimated 800 who have been turned over for prosecution, no witness could say how many had actually been prosecuted when grilled by Larsen. The closest they got to an answer was “very few.” (The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, called this the “catch and release” status quo.)
The congressmen and witnesses viewed finance as a vital part of the current solution too, in getting people not to pay the ransoms that continue to fund operations and in finding the “pirate kingpins” who fund the operations at the outset. The latter, all seemed to agree, would need to be done via dry land.
LoBiond0 lost his temper at one point, after a lot of talk about future talk (instead of action). “What will it take for us to finally say we’re not going to try to hold hands and serve more milk and cookies?!” he said. “There has to be a breaking point for the U.S. to say we’ve had enough and do something about this.” But none of the witnesses could provide estimates of how much the U.S. is currently spending on counter-piracy operations, and it seems the proponents of the program may struggle to get more, whatever the amount, given how far from home the problem seems and, literally, is.