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!

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