President Obama dispatched two separate teams of Navy commandos to carry out last week’s rescue of a merchant ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates but left the operational details and rules of engagement to military commanders, National Security Adviser James. L. Jones said Tuesday.
“I can tell you from a White House and presidential standpoint, there was no conflict, no gnashing of teeth, or excessive influence in trying to manage this thing,” Mr. Jones, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, told The Washington Times in an interview.
He and other military officials gave the most detailed account to date of how Navy SEAL forces were dispatched - first from a base in Africa and later from the United States - to carry out the mission, and how Pentagon officials communicated with the White House. They sought to dispel Internet reports that the military was delayed from taking action by indecision inside the White House.
“I don’t recognize” the information being circulated on the Internet, Mr. Jones said.
Pentagon officials said the owners of the merchant ship Maersk Alabama controlled the scene in the early hours after the hostage-taking on April 8. As soon as the Pentagon took charge on April 10 with its warship the USS Bainbridge on the scene, Mr. Obama first authorized a few Navy SEALs from a base in Africa to deploy to the Bainbridge and take necessary action. The team was flown by transport aircraft and parachuted to waters near the warship, officials said.
“It took awhile to get facts and then to get the military on scene,” said one senior military official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing special forces operations. “As the picture got more clear and commanders’ requests went back down the chain, the guidance was: ‘We would like a peaceful resolution. However, if Captain Phillips’ life is in danger you can take appropriate action.’ ”
The arrival of the first SEAL team gave the military an emergency capability if the pirates holding the ship’s captain became violent. Mr. Jones said the Pentagon requested that a second, more complete SEAL team be dispatched from the United States and Mr. Obama approved that request as well.
“This was, from my perspective, a textbook operation,” Mr. Jones said in the interview. “There were two things [the president] was asked to approve and he did. And the military executed flawlessly.”
Among the reports disputed by Pentagon officials was a widely circulated Internet critique - purportedly from an anonymous source close to the SEAL community - saying Navy SEALs missed a chance to shoot the pirates on April 10 when Richard Phillips, the captain of the hijacked freighter, jumped out of a lifeboat where he was being held in a failed escape attempt.
However, military officials at the Pentagon involved in the operation said Navy SEAL snipers had not arrived on board the Bainbridge at that time and therefore could not have fired on the pirates.
Contrary to the critical report, the president did not reject two proposed rescue attempts by U.S. forces prior to the sniper attack, Mr. Jones said.
Navy SEAL commandos based in Norfolk, from the Naval Development Group, part of the Naval Special Warfare Center based in Coronado, Calif., were dispatched to the region. On April 12, snipers on the team killed the three Somali pirates holding Mr. Phillips with what military officials said was a difficult, simultaneous rifle attack.
They fired from the fantail of the guided missile destroyer while it was towing the lifeboat to seas that were less choppy.
A fourth man captured during the incident, Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse, was brought back to the United States and charged with piracy in federal court in New York on Tuesday. He appeared in New York with a bandaged hand, smiling at times as he was escorted by federal agents.