Sunday, April 12, 2009

Obama beats first national security test

AP White House Correspondent

The U.S. economy is showing only glimmers of life and two costly wars remain in the balance, but President Barack Obama's "no drama" handling of the Indian Ocean hostage crisis proved a big win for his administration in its first critical national security test.

Obama's quiet backstage decision to authorize the Defense Department to take necessary action if Capt. Richard Phillips' life was in imminent danger gave a Navy commander the go-ahead to order snipers to fire on the pirates holding the cargo ship captain at gunpoint.

For Obama, the benefits were instantly clear: an American life saved and a major victory notched against an increasingly worrisome scourge of the seas off the Horn of Africa.

Obama's handling of the crisis showed a president who was comfortable in relying on the U.S. military, much as his predecessor, George W. Bush, did.

But it also showed a new commander in chief who was willing to use all the tools at his disposal, bringing in federal law enforcement officials to handle the judicial elements of the crisis.

The rescue appeared to vindicate Obama's muted but determined handling of the incident. What won't be known for some time is whether Obama will benefit politically.

When Obama campaigns for re-election, he may take Bush's approach of turning any such incident into evidence of his leadership acumen. On the other hand, Obama didn't go before the cameras Sunday to trumpet the success, instead releasing a written statement that saluted the bravery of the military and Phillips but claimed no credit for himself.

Also, this crisis, while topping the news now, may fade into distant memory by the time voters get a chance to take any new measure of Obama and his party.

Still, it goes some way toward dispelling the notion that a liberal Democrat with a known distaste for war — Obama campaigned on his consistent opposition to the Iraq invasion — doesn't have the chops to call on U.S. military power.

The sniper operation Sunday, with pirate guns aimed at Phillips, was a daring, high-stakes gambit, and it could have easily gone awry. If it had, the fallout would have probably landed hardest on Obama.

Indeed, the last Democratic president to unleash American military might against Somalis suffered miserably from the failure of that operation. Portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," a U.S. peacekeeping mission ordered by President Bill Clinton ended with a humiliating withdrawal of troops after a deadly clash in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

The outcome this time was vastly different.

Since the standoff began last Tuesday, Obama made no public, in-person remarks on the topic, even declining to answer when questions were shouted at him during a press availability.

He didn't call in his Cabinet for a high-profile command meeting. He let military and top administration officials do the talking, but even they kept saber-rattling out of the equation.

White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said Obama's silence should not be interpreted to mean that he wasn't deeply involved. The president's public posture was calculated to not raise the temperature on the situation or give the hostage-takers anything to exploit.

"Let's not confuse a public role with being on top of the situation," Emanuel said. "If you'd interjected yourself, you would make the discussions that were happening more difficult."

So what Obama did was receive regular briefings, sometimes as often as half a dozen times a day. He weighed in with two critical decisions allowing the military to take action to save Phillips' life. And he laid the groundwork for a federal criminal law enforcement response.

White House officials said the Justice Department is already reviewing evidence to determine whether to file criminal charges against the captured Somali pirate. The U.S. is treating the matter as a criminal case because officials have found no direct ties between East African pirates and terror groups.

Obama doesn't like labels for himself or catch phrases for policy. So it's notable that in an administration that has for all intents and purposes banned the phrase "war on terror," no one called the pirates "terrorists."

RESCUE AT SEA 'Obama does it right again!'

In Rescue of Captain, Navy Kills 3 Pirates
Navy Seal snipers rescued an American cargo ship captain unharmed and killed three Somali pirates in a daring operation in the Indian Ocean on Sunday, ending a five-day standoff between United States naval forces and a small band of brigands in a covered orange lifeboat off the Horn of Africa.

Acting with President Obama’s authorization and in the belief that the hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, was in imminent danger of being killed by captors armed with pistols and AK-47s, snipers on the fantail of the destroyer Bainbridge, which was towing the lifeboat on a 100-foot line, opened fire and picked off the three captors.

Two of the captors had poked their heads out of a rear hatch of the lifeboat, exposing themselves to clear shots, and the third could be seen through a window in the bow, pointing an automatic rifle at the captain, who was tied up inside the 18-foot lifeboat, senior Navy officials said.

It took only three remarkable shots — one each by snipers firing from a distance at dusk, using night-vision scopes, the officials said. Within minutes, rescuers slid down ropes from the Bainbridge, climbed aboard the lifeboat and found the three pirates dead. They then untied Captain Phillips, ending the contretemps at sea that had riveted much of the world’s attention. A fourth pirate had surrendered earlier.

Shortly after his rescue, Captain Phillips was taken aboard the Bainbridge, underwent a medical exam and was found to be in relatively good condition for a 53-year-old seafarer who had been held since Wednesday by pirates who had demanded $2 million for his life. He called home and was flown to the Boxer, an amphibious assault ship also off the Somali coast. Arrangements were being made Sunday night for his return home to Vermont.

“I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “His courage is a model for all Americans.”

Jubilation over the dramatic rescue reached from the White House to Underhill, Vt., Captain Phillips’s hometown, and from personnel aboard the Bainbridge to the cheering, fist-pumping 19-member crew of the captain’s cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, docked in Mombasa, Kenya.

Captain Phillips, who was said to be resting comfortably, spoke to officials of the Maersk Line, who quoted him as saying: “The real heroes are the Navy, the Seals, those who have brought me home.” He also spoke to his wife, Andrea, and two college-aged children in Underhill, where dozens of yellow ribbons fluttered on the white picket fence of his home and two small American flags jutted up from the lawn.

“This is truly a very happy Easter for the Phillips family,” said Alison McColl, a Maersk representative assigned to speak for the family. “They are all just so happy and relieved,” she said. “I think you can all imagine their joy and what a happy moment it was for them.”

On the family’s behalf, Ms. McColl thanked the nation and the people of Vermont for their prayers and support. . “Obviously, this has been a long journey for the family,” she said. John Reinhart, president and chief executive of Maersk Line Ltd., praised the Navy and federal officials for their performance. “Everyone’s worked around the clock,” he said. “It’s magnificent to see the outcome.”

While the outcome was a triumph for America, officials in many countries plagued by pirates said it was not likely to discourage them. Pirates are holding a dozen ships with more than 200 crew members, according to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau.

In Somalia itself, other pirates reacted angrily to the news that Captain Phillips had been rescued, and some said they would avenge the deaths of their colleagues by killing Americans in sea hijackings to come.

“Every country will be treated the way it treats us,” Abdullahi Lami, one of the pirates holding a Greek ship anchored in the pirate den of Gaan, a central Somali town, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying in a telephone interview. “In the future, America will be the one mourning and crying.”

Aboard the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton cargo ship, Captain Phillips’s crew erupted in cheers, waved American flags and fired off flares. When four pirates attacked the ship on Wednesday, the crew escaped harm after the captain offered himself as a hostage. He told his crewmen to lock themselves in cabins, and allowed himself to be taken at gunpoint into the lifeboat in which the pirates fled.

Over the ensuing days, according to official accounts of the episode, the pirates made repeated threats to kill the captain as their motorized lifeboat moved about 30 miles off the Somali coast. It was closely watched by United States warships and helicopters in an increasingly tense standoff.

Talks to free the captain began Thursday, with the commander of the Bainbridge communicating with the pirates under instructions from F.B.I. hostage negotiators flown to the scene. The pirates threatened to kill Captain Phillips if attacked, and the result was tragicomic: the world’s most powerful navy vs. a lifeboat.

Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, commander of the United States naval forces in the region, said in a briefing in Bahrain that despite ransom demands from the pirates the United States had not discussed any ransom and had talked to the pirates only about the release of Captain Phillips and the pirates’ surrender.

The Defense Department twice sought Mr. Obama’s permission to use force to rescue Captain Phillips, most recently on Friday night, senior defense officials said. On Saturday morning, the president agreed, they said, if it appeared that the captain’s life was in imminent danger.

By Friday, with several warships within easy reach of the lifeboat, the negotiations had gone nowhere. Captain Phillips jumped into the sea, but was quickly recaptured. On Saturday, the pirates fired several shots at a small boat that had approached from the Bainbridge.

By the weekend, however, the pirates had begun to run out of food, water and fuel. That apparently provided the opening officials were hoping for. In briefings, senior officers who spoke anonymously because they had not been authorized to disclose information said that the pirates agreed to accept food and water. A small craft was used to deliver them and it apparently made several trips between the Bainbridge and the lifeboat.

On one trip, one of the four pirates — whose hand had been gashed during the capture of Captain Phillips — asked for medical treatment and, in effect surrendering, was taken in the small boat to the Bainbridge. Justice Department officials were studying options for his case, including criminal charges in the United States or turning him over to Kenya, where dozens of pirates have faced prosecution. Three pirates were left on board with Captain Phillips.

Meanwhile, members of the Navy Seals were flown in by fixed-wing aircraft. They parachuted into the sea with inflatable boats and were picked up by the Bainbridge. On Sunday, the pirates, their fuel gone, were drifting toward the Somali coast. They agreed to accept a tow from the Bainbridge, the senior officials said. At first, the towline was 200 feet long, but as darkness gathered and seas became rough, the towline was shortened to 100 feet, the officials said. It was unclear if this was done with the pirates’ knowledge.

At dusk, a single tracer bullet was seen fired from the lifeboat. The intent was unclear, but it ratcheted up the tension and Seal snipers at the stern rail of the Bainbridge fixed night-vision scopes to their high-powered rifles, getting ready for action.

What they saw was the head and shoulders of two of the pirates emerging from the rear hatch of the lifeboat. Through the window of the front hatch they saw the third pirate, pointing his AK-47 at the back of Captain Phillips, who was seen to be tied up.

That was it: the provocation that fulfilled the president’s order to act only if the captain’s life was in imminent danger, and the opportunity of having clear shots at each captor. The order was given. Senior defense officials, themselves marveling at the skill of the snipers, said each took a target and fired one shot.

“This was an incredible team effort,” Admiral Gortney said when it was over. “And I am extremely proud of the tireless efforts of all the men and women who made this rescue possible.”