The World from The Hill: Muted outcry in Washington after deadly pirate attack

Battling pirates was high on the agenda last Congress as seafaring Somali criminals haunted the shipping industry. But the outcry in Washington has been noticeably muted after Somali captors killed four Americans last week.

The yacht of California couple Scott and Jean Adam was seized Feb. 18 in open waters between Mumbai and Djibouti. Two crew members, Phyllis Macay and Robert A. Riggle of Seattle, were also on board. On Monday, U.S. negotiations with the pirates went horribly awry and all four were killed.

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President Obama did not issue a statement on the tragedy. White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the administration was "obviously outraged by the actions of the pirates."

"And the president, as you know, I believe, has expressed his sincere condolences to the families of the victims," Carney said at a press briefing. "But beyond that, I don't want to get into details."

"This deplorable act firmly underscores the need for continued international progress toward confronting the shared security challenge posed by piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement Tuesday.

Meanwhile, few in Congress have issued press releases. It's a far cry from the celebrated rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, who was held hostage in a lifeboat for four days after pirates raided the Maersk Alabama on April 8, 2009.

Phillips jumped in the water and tried to swim away at one point, though the pirates shot into the water at him. He was unharmed and taken back into captivity. When one pirate was on board the USS Bainbridge trying to negotiate ransom terms, Navy snipers killed the three pirates remaining in the boat and Phillips was rescued.

“These acts of piracy off of Somalia’s coastline may seem surreal, but they’re all too real and a thorough policy debate is long overdue,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in April 2009 as he quickly called for hearings on the matter. “When Americans, including at least one from Massachusetts, are endangered, you’ve got a complicated and dangerous international situation brewing, and that includes questions about a hot-pursuit policy on Somalia’s coastline."

Contacted for comment in the deaths of the four Americans, Kerry's office said the senator had not issued a statement and that no known plans were under way to call more hearings on the matter.

The office of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said she was gathering information on what happened.

By all accounts, that information is confusing at best.

Hoping for another successful end to a four-day standoff with American hostages, an FBI negotiator let two pirates on board the USS Sterett to talk terms for their release. But they were deemed to not be serious about negotiations and taken into custody, according to The New York Times. The pirates left on the yacht were told to send over another negotiator.


However, a CNN report cited unnamed sources who disagreed with that account, saying that instead it was determined that the pirates lacked the autority to negotiate but that they could not be returned to the yacht.

Surrounded by four Navy warships, the pirates on the yacht were still judged to be "exceptionally calm" by U.S. officials, according to a military official who spoke to The New York Times. The pirates were given an offer to take the yacht and let the hostages go, and U.S. officials agreed to give them eight hours to sleep on the deal.

Hours later, the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade, which missed its target, at the Sterett and Navy SEALs raided the yacht to find all four Americans dead or dying. Two pirates were killed, two were found dead, and 13 were taken into custody and could be brought to the U.S. for trial.

The seizure of the yacht came just two days after Abduhl Wal-i-Musi, the pirate captured in the Maersk Alabama case, was sentenced in New York to 33 years in prison on piracy charges.

"From now on, anyone who tries to rescue the hostages in our hands will only collect dead bodies," a pirate who called himself Muse Abdi said in a statement to the Associated Press. "It will never ever happen that hostages are rescued and we are hauled to prison."

In the wake of the yacht deaths, Somali pirates set about ferrying ammunition and reinforcements to the 30 hijacked vessels still under their control.

“We had plans to either take the hostages to the inland mountains or to move onto other hijacked ships, because we knew that the US Navy was serious about carrying out a rescue operation,’’ a pirate named Hassan told the Associated Press. “The hostages pleaded with us not to harm them or take them to dangerous places. They cried when we captured them ... and asked us to release them because they were too old and couldn’t endure captivity.’’

Far from a waning problem, pirate attacks -- which have spanned some 2.5 million miles from Oman to the Gulf of Aden, stretching toward India and south past the Seychelle islands -- rose in 2010 from the previous year. Pirates captured 53 ships in the Horn of Africa region and staged 160 attempted attacks on vessels last year.

"Everything about these pirate attacks is increasing: the frequency, geography and cost, infecting a shipping lane that's vital to our interest," Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who heads the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, told The Hill. "These attacks stem from the anarchy in Somalia. Realistically, that's likely to persist."

Days before the attack, at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about suggestions of terror links among what was a few years ago a "disorganized ragtag band that was interested in shaking down someone for money."

"There is, I think, some connection, particularly with al-Shabaab in Somalia in relation to piracy, I think either directly or indirectly," Clapper said, calling piracy a "major issue."

"They do obtain revenue from some of these pirate activities, although most of it to this point appears to be just individual criminal gangs operating to extract money for holding hostage these ships," he said. "Obviously, that's something we're watching."

LoBiondo asked Clapper what could be done to address the problem of piracy.

"Well, one of the challenges -- I'm not sure we can do something about it, but one of the challenges with pirates is if you capture them, what do you do with them?" Clapper said. "The international legal mechanisms for prosecuting, trying and convicting pirates turns out to be rather problematic. That's not obviously something we, the U.S., can do something, but that is a problem for the international community."

Royce said that in the wake of the four American deaths, piracy needs to be addressed with a renewed focus.

"We can try to deter these bandits by pulling no punches," Royce said. "We better signal our seriousness now."