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:

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

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
"In mid-August, hundreds of displaced Christians who had fled to Erbil were moved by Kurdish authorities into the concrete shell of a half-built mall. "
Photograph by Sebastian Meyer
Article
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Iraq has every disease there is; its mind is deranged with too many voices, its organs corrupted, its limbs only long enough to tear at its own body.”
Photograph by Benjamin Busch
Post
Flying Blind·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“President Obama’s war against the Islamic State will represent, by a rough count, the eighth time the U.S. air-power lobby has promised to crush a foe without setting boot or foot on the ground.”
Article
The Monkey Did It·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Murakami’s fiction, what presents itself as a key reveals itself simultaneously to be a keyhole.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
PBS Self-Destructs·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The present state of PBS, the result of built-in deficiencies and ideological conflicts, was almost an inevitability.”
Illustration by Thomas Allen

Estimated percentage of U.S. gasoline consumption that occurs during traffic jams:

4

In India, 1.8 million female children were estimated to have died between 1985 and 2005 as an indirect result of domestic violence against their mothers; the boys of abused mothers were not at increased risk of death.

Vanilla latte and lemon pound cake continued to be the best-selling items at the Starbucks at CIA headquarters, where baristas do not write customers’ names on their cups.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today