WASHINGTON — Commercial shipping companies need to take greater responsibility for protecting their vessels against Somali pirates — including hiring private armed security guards — and look less to the U.S. Navy or other international military for help.
That was the message senators delivered at two hearings Tuesday on U.S. efforts to combat piracy on the world's oceans, a growing problem punctuated in the U.S. by last month's capture of the Maersk Alabama and the dramatic rescue of its captain, Richard Phillips, by Navy SEALs.
Phillips told a Senate Commerce subcommittee that the world must address socioeconomic problems on land in Somalia if it wants to eradicate Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
"This will require an intensive international effort to address the root causes of piracy within Somalia, and this effort will undoubtedly long and difficult," he said. "But unless the root causes of piracy are addressed, it will continue to expand and evolve into a greater and greater threat for American and foreign seamen."
However, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which met earlier in the day, had little use for the suggestion that Somalia's chronic political instability, lawlessness and poverty must be fixed in order to stamp out piracy.
Instead, several senators voiced a get-tough position, expressing agitation that commercial shipping companies aren't doing more to provide their own security, and frustration over what they feel is a lack of international consensus on how to handle piracy.
"These are criminals, and if we treat this criminal activity as being attributable to poverty, we're going to be ineffective in dealing with it," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "So from my perspective, our policy is going to be ineffective until we treat this harshly, until we treat this as the criminal activity that it is."
Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich, opened the hearing by declaring that piracy must be fought through "a holistic approach combining military efforts with deterrence, collaboration with allies, and ongoing diplomatic outreach."
He then pressed Defense Department and State Department witnesses about whether they'll push an international group working on Somali piracy to recommend that shipping companies hire private armed security guards for their vessels at sea.
Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy; Vice Admiral James Winnefeld, the director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and James Caponiti, the acting deputy administrator of the Transportation Department's Maritime Administration, told lawmakers that some companies and countries are reluctant to endorse armed guards — citing insurance concerns, space problems aboard ships, and rules in some ports that prevent weapons-carrying ships from docking.
"It's the most controversial issue we have now," Caponiti said. "There's more opposition among the (European Union) . . . than there is on the U.S. side."
Phillips said that armed security details aboard commercial ships is an idea that could "certainly be developed into an effective deterrent."
"My preference would be government protection forces," he said. "However, as long as they are adequately trained, I would not be opposed to private security on board."
Levin said that putting armed security personnel aboard ships is a no-brainer, noting that even shopping centers have armed guards patrolling their corridors.
Private U.S. shipping companies balk at congressional charges of being soft on shipboard security.
"That view, with all due respect, sir, is flat wrong," said Philip Shapiro, the president and chief executive of Liberty Maritime. One of its ships, the Liberty Sun, was attacked by Somali pirates last month. "Our company adopted every measure recommended by international organizations and required by the U.S. Coast Guard's approved security plan for making the vessel a difficult piracy target and more."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said it was costly for the U.S. military to patrol the nearly 1 million nautical square mile area near Somalia for pirates. That's also a diversion of military and intelligence resources at a time when the U.S. is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he noted.
He suggested that commercial shipping companies don't want to pay for securing their vessels, thinking the expense isn't worth it considering how infrequently pirate attacks occur.
Statistically, high seas piracy is a small problem. Flournoy said that 33,000 vessels travel through the Gulf of Aden annually. There were 122 pirate attacks last year, of which 42 were successful.
"So if you're making a business judgment, the odds of having this problem are quite low, even though the financial consequences of a particular seizure may be high," Lieberman said. "But you start to balance that against the cost of putting security personnel on all your ships and maybe it's worth the risk."
The human cost has been high, however. Last year, pirates held 899 mariners hostage worldwide — 815 of them in Somalia. Pirates globally killed 11 mariners, and another 21 were listed as missing or presumed dead, according to the International Maritime Bureau. During the same period, four mariners were killed off the Horn of Africa, and 14 were missing or presumed dead.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY