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.
The rescue operation was delayed because of the time it took to deploy the second SEAL team of more than 20 commandos, along with boats and special equipment, from the United States to the area about 300 miles off the coast of Somalia, Pentagon officials said.
At the Pentagon, military officials said the rules of engagement were set by military commanders at Central Command and were more limited than combat rules because the Navy regarded the operation as countering criminal activity, namely piracy.
Mr. Jones said the hostage rescue was “a real-world test” for the White House National Security Council crisis system that he heads, as well as a test for the Pentagon.
“I think everybody played their part well and there wasn’t any overstepping on anybody’s equities,” he said. “The right questions were asked and the right actions were taken.”
After the rescue was over, Mr. Jones said, he called Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and asked for a postmortem on the operation. “The response I got was that everything was done professionally and calmly,” he said.
The president and several advisers in Washington held several secure video conferences to discuss the rescue during the five-day standoff, military officials said. No details of the conferences were made public by the officials.
Mr. Jones said he has firsthand experience of being on the military end of civilian involvement in a merchant ship seizure. He was a former Marine Corps officer in 1975 when his battalion was involved in the communist Khmer Rouge’s capture of the merchant ship Mayaguez at the end of the Vietnam War.
Fourteen Marines were killed in an assault to free the Mayaguez, whose crew had been released from the vessel earlier.
“I’ve been on the end of an 8,000-mile[-long] screwdriver,” he said. “I was really happy how this thing played out. All the operatives had all the top cover they needed. The risk assessment was done. The execution was spot on.”
Any delays in moving the forces that ultimately took action were not the result of obtaining authorization from the White House or Pentagon but the time it took to move SEALs, their vessels and other equipment from the East Coast to the Horn of Africa, a flight distance of about 7,800 miles, the senior official said.
The SEAL team in Norfolk is normally made up of more than 120 commandos. For the Somalia rescue, the team was trimmed down and involved more than 20 troops, including vessels.
The team mobilized as rapidly as possible and moved out within hours of the White House approval. The senior official said the request to use the forces was approved in a matter of hours.
“Once what we asked for had been approved, the long pole in the tent was getting them there,” the official said. “That took … roughly a day, to get loaded and wheels up, then aerial refueling to get them there.”
Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of Navy forces in the Middle East, told reporters on Sunday that “there were standing orders that if [Mr. Phillips] was at risk and we on scene determined that he was under imminent danger, to go ahead and take decisive action.”
Authorities went through “a deliberate, slow deliberate process to let the negotiation process work itself out to a nonviolent end,” he said. “And unfortunately, that did not occur.”
A defense official said one reason for any hesitation in taking action was the less-than-successful raid on a pirated yacht in the Gulf of Aden on April 10. That raid by French military forces killed two Somali pirates and freed four hostages but led to the death of one other hostage.
The anonymous SEAL source stated in the Internet posting that was attributed to “some SEAL pals in Virginia Beach” that the president would not authorize the SEALs to deploy for 36 hours despite requests from the on-scene commander.
The senior military official said that assertion was false.
The posting also stated that rules of engagement imposed by the president prevented action unless the hostage’s life was in imminent danger.
The military official said the commander had authority to take action at all times because Mr. Phillips was being held at gunpoint, but that he was balancing his authority with Washington’s request to seek a peaceful outcome.