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State Department seeks tougher anti-piracy policies

State Department seeks tougher anti-piracy policies

   The killing of four U.S. citizens onboard their hijacked private sailboat by Somali pirates late last month has prompted the U.S. State Department to undertake an intensive internal review of the government's counter-piracy strategy.

   Testifying at a House hearing Tuesday, Kurt Amend, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, said the tragedy 'galvanized Secretary (Hillary) Clinton' to order a serious reassessment of whether U.S. policy needed to adapt to the recent escalation in violence.

   'Our goal is to develop a recalibrated strategy that once implemented will enhance the safety and security of Americans on the high seas,' he told members of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Coast Guard and maritime transportation.

   Amend said the new strategy will be finalized soon, but the range of options would:

   ' Continue policies to discourage nations and private parties from paying ransoms.

   ' Stress self-protection measures by the shipping industry.

   ' Seek prosecution of pirates in national courts.

   ' Solicit contributions of military forces and basing rights to defend against pirates.

   ' Promote financial contributions to an international trust fund to defray expenses of countries in the region willing to prosecute and incarcerate pirates.

   The United States and the international community are also working on diplomatic solutions to the political vacuum in Somalia that enables piracy to flourish, including providing assistance to regional governments in the country that oppose piracy.

   They are also trying to build the legal capacity of African states to prosecute pirates.

   U.S. officials plan to launch a strong public information campaign to discredit piracy inside Somalia, Yeman and beyond by emphasizing the economic and human damage it does, he added.

   The National Security Council is also updating its action plan on piracy to address changes in operations and tactics by hostage-takers, officials said.

   Amend said an important new goal of the government is to target the financial flows of pirate kingpins that organize the attacks on innocent private and commercial vessels at sea.

   The United States is working to establish a fifth working group in the 60-nation Contact Group on Somali piracy that would enable the departments of Treasury and Justice, the intelligence community and international partners to share information and cut off money to pirate leaders, said.

   The Contact Group has four working committees that focus on coordinating multinational naval patrols off the Horn of Africa, promoting best management practices to prevent pirates from boarding ships, pursuing legal remedies and avoiding ransom payments.

   The State Department hosted a meeting on March 1 to develop a coordinated process for international intelligence, financial and law enforcement communities to disable pirate networks. At the meeting, many nations expressed interest in forensic methods to deny pirate chiefs the ability to benefit from their ransom proceeds, Amend said.

   The average ransom paid to obtain the release of a vessel and its crew is now $4 million. Individuals involved in piracy typically do business in cash, but U.S. investigators have gotten better at understanding the informal money flows and the hawala financial system that facilitates piracy.

   'As pirates have pivoted and are able to shift their tactics, we've recognized we need to shift tactics and to look at ways to attack the more senior leaders in the structure,' Amend said.

   'We firmly believe that the U.S. must intensify counter-piracy intelligence efforts,' he added. 'We need to elevate the priority of collection, analysis and exploitation of human and signals intelligence related to piracy operations, financial flows, and logistical support, both inside and outside Somalia. And we need to find ways to share piracy-related intelligence with law enforcement organizations, both domestic and international.'

   Administration officials repeatedly stressed the importance of commercial fleets taking responsibility to protect their own ships by developing and implementing security plans designed for their specific vessels and destinations. Measures such as maintaining full speed in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, placing additional lookouts on watches, using closed-circuit television to monitor vulnerable areas, erecting razor wire and creating a hardened citadel room where the crew can retreat to if the vessel is overrun by pirates, have proven effective in deterring and thwarting attacks, they said.

   Working Group Three, which is tasked with developing industry best practices for reducing vulnerability to attacks, met Feb. 28 and launched an effort to develop formal guidelines for armed security teams that other flag-state administrations could adopt, Rear Adm. Kevin Cook, the Coast Guard's director of prevention policy, told the House panel.

   The U.S. Coast Guard issued a maritime security directive in 2009 recommending that the ocean shipping industry place armed or unarmed security teams onboard vessels as part of a security directive requiring vessels operating around the Horn of Africa and other high-risk areas to take extra measures to defend against pirates.

   Many governments and some in the maritime industry criticized the decision because of concerns that guns on board commercial vessels would lead to an escalation of pirate violence, potential liability from shooting accidents, and nations that prohibit mariners from possessing guns.

   Cook said the ongoing attacks far off the Somali coastline have led the international shipping community to change its position on armed security guards and that the Quest murders was a turning point for other governments previously reluctant to authorize private security teams on their flag vessels.

   'The initial concerns were that armed security would lead to escalating violence and I think actually the opposite has occurred,' said Stephen Caldwell, director of maritime security and Coast Guard issues at the Government Accountability Office. Countries such as Korea and the Philippines, who have had citizens killed by pirates, are among those that now support armed guards on commercial ships.

   Armed security teams are also much more efficient way to protect ships than trying to patrol 2.5 million square miles of ocean with expensive naval vessels, he added.

   Vessels with armed security teams have not suffered any pirate takeovers, testified William Wechler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats.

   Vessel operators have recently increased the use of security personnel, Cook said. Several ship owners have changed the flag their ships fly under so they can use armed guards, and some are hiring protective forces without the true concurrence of the flag state. Caldwell said some flag states recognize they don't have navies to protect shipping lanes, but seem more amenable to allowing armed security teams on board.

   The Coast Guard has not pressured countries with flags of convenience to help pay for naval protection around the Horn of Africa, as suggested by Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo, but has urged them to get their ship owners to provide long-range identification and tracking reports to the European Union's Maritime Security Center, which tracks ships transiting the Gulf of Aden, so that naval forces have better maritime domain awareness and can deploy assets where needed, Cook said.

   Working Group Three plans to develop a framework for the use of security teams by September, he said.

   Many challenges remain to implement policy changes because of complications with laws in countries, such as Germany, that prohibit arms on ships.

   Wechler noted that less than 0.5 percent of the 33,000 vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden in 2010 were attacked, and fewer than a third of them were successful hijackings. ' Eric Kulisch

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