SEALs chose when to fire

Snipers awaited sign captain was in imminent danger

April 14, 2009|By Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller | Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -Before ending a pirate standoff with three fatally precise shots, Navy SEAL snipers had passed on multiple opportunities to fire.

They had moved into position after the White House expanded the authority it had given the world's most powerful navy against a rag-tag foe holding an American sea captain hostage on a lifeboat.

They kept their scopes trained on their Somali targets as prospects for a peaceful resolution seemed to shrivel.

Most of all, they waited as a series of seemingly insignificant moves - from extending the pirates a rope for a tow to bringing an injured brigand onboard - improved the sharpshooters' odds of success.

In his first public remarks on the rescue, President Barack Obama pledged a sustained campaign against piracy.

"I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region," Obama said Monday. "We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes."

Obama was briefed on the crisis at least 18 times, including a National Security Council session on "hostage contingencies" just hours before the snipers fired their shots. But the crisis seems to have crystallized for the administration on Friday, after the White House got word that Capt. Richard Phillips had tried to escape from his captors.

Senior National Security Council officials met in the White House situation room to draft a series of options to deliver to Obama. Later that night, Obama appears to have issued his first order authorizing the use of lethal force. The next morning, that authority to use lethal force was expanded and SEALs arrived on the USS Bainbridge.

A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the sniper team had multiple opportunities to shoot but held off, not believing that Phillips was in imminent danger.

The military thought it had a crucial breakthrough Sunday morning. The youngest pirate, who had been injured, asked the SEALs if he could come aboard the Bainbridge to make a phone call.

As Sunday dragged on, the seas grew rougher, and Navy officers offered to tow the lifeboat behind the Bainbridge, telling the pirates that they would move them to calmer waters. Once the lifeboat was tethered to the destroyer, military officials said, the pirates grew more desperate, feeling they had lost control of both their boat and the situation. Also, the pirates were probably suffering from withdrawal from khat, a narcotic leaf chewed by many Somali men, according to a senior military official. Aboard the hot and cramped lifeboat, tensions escalated. Watching from the Bainbridge, the sniper team observed an apparent argument between Phillips and one of the pirates.

The SEAL team observed two of the pirates move away from Phillips and stick their heads out from a hatch. The third pirate raised his weapon at Phillips' back. Convinced that Phillips was about to be shot, the SEAL commander gave the order to fire.

"If the goal was just to kill these guys, there were opportunities where we could have shot them," said a senior military official. "This was not the outcome we wanted. We wanted those three guys to give themselves up."

A Pentagon spokesman said the shooting could discourage future attacks on commercial ships sailing the Indian Ocean.

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters Monday that some penalties taken against pirates before Sunday's rescue had failed to deter lawlessness on the high seas.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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