Washington Babylon — April 9, 2009, 8:27 am

Pirates and the CIA: What would Thomas Jefferson have done?

“It was the sixth such attack this week and one of 66 this year by Somali pirates, a collection of shrewd businessmen and daring opportunists who have pulled off a series of spectacular seizures using high- and low-tech gear, from satellite phones and rocket-propelled grenades to battered wooden skiffs and rickety ladders,” the Washington Post reported today about the attack on a U.S.-operated container ship. “In the past year, their booty has included the MV Faina, a Ukrainian ship loaded with tanks and antiaircraft guns, and the MV Sirius Star, a 300,000-ton, 1,000-foot-long Saudi oil tanker that is the largest ship to be seized in history.”

For months, a former senior CIA officer has been telling me that pirate activity off Somalia was a problem that needed to be aggressively dealt with. By chance, I had a meeting with him yesterday as the Maersk Alabama hijacking was unfolding. Here’s what he had to say (he updated his remarks today):

The American response to date has been incredibly naïve and woefully ineffective. Now, predictably, you have an American taken hostage. All of which should have been prevented. You’ve got a failed state in Somalia and pirates operating in an area of ocean that is larger than the state of Texas but we’ve been trying to deal with this from the ocean side, by sending the navy and with a limited application of technology, such as satellites and drones. We can’t afford to patrol that big a piece of the ocean; it’s too expensive to leave a naval task force out there.

We need to deal with this problem from the beach side, in concert with the ocean side, but we don’t have an embassy in Somalia and limited, ineffective intelligence operations. We need to work in Somalia and in Lebanon, where a lot of the ransom money has changed hands. But our operations in Lebanon are a joke, and we have no presence at all in Somalia. Attempting to interdict this exclusively from the water side is folly. The U.S. Navy is already stretched so thin with enormous other tasks and amassing the required resources to search for a small band of thieves would be a waste of valuable resources. The U.S. Navy should not have to shoulder this mission alone. Where is the CIA? Where is the humint effort in Somalia? Where is the covert action capability of the CIA that should be on the ground in Somalia, collecting, pressuring, attacking, and destroying pirate infrastructure?

The pirates have a base of operations and infrastructure. They’re not going out 400-plus nautical miles from shore in shitty boats; they have fuel supplies, docks, mechanics, and support infrastructure, on the beach. It’s all findable and disrupt-able. We need a contingent of agency personnel in Ethiopia and Somalia to go after this infrastructure, leadership and control elements in Somalia, and an aggressive humint [human intelligence] effort in Lebanon to follow, and choke off the money.

This is a challenge to confront, but it has to be dealt with. A band of thugs are tying up international shipping along a gigantic stretch of Africa that’s an approach area for the Suez Canal. Last year, the hijackers made $80 million, which is a staggering sum of money in that country. Up until now, little has been done to deal with it because of the expense, complexity and necessary commitment of manpower and resources required. Also, given the long history of Al Qaida in Somalia, no one wants to discuss the possibility that it may have a role in this pirate activity as a revenue stream. That’s a question that could be answered if we had better humint in Somalia.

The navy sent the USS Bainbridge to the pirate incident. Commodore Bainbridge was the commander of the task force that President Jefferson sent to fight the Barbary pirate incidents in Tripoli. Commodore Bainbridge is probably spinning in his grave at how feckless our response is today. In 1803-05, Jefferson sent Captain Eaton to conduct a covert action attack against the pirates and their infrastructure and leadership on the beach. Captain Eaton assembled a handful of of U.S. Marines and a group of Arab, Greek and North African mercenaries and attacked the Basha from the desert, overland side, while the Naval task force bombarded the sea side. And the State Department authorized a “payment” to the Basha, paid by that rat Tobias Lear.

It was the first combined covert action, U.S. Navy operational action against a foreign enemy. Unconventional warfare, against an unconventional enemy. What a novel idea. We handled things better 200 years ago!

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Amount the town of Rolfe, Iowa, will pay anyone who builds a home there:

$1,200

Ancient Egyptians worshiped some dwarves as gods.

In Italy, a judge ordered that a man who paid for sex with a 15-year-old girl must buy her 30 feminist-themed books, including The Diary of Anne Frank and the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today