Multi-National Task Force Focuses On Preventing Piracy

With the hostage crisis at sea resolved, attention has turned to preventing future acts of piracy. U.S. Navy's Rear Adm. Michelle Howard, who took over command of a multi-national counter-piracy task force, tells Robert Siegel that the task force needs to define the areas where the pirates are working and focus on them.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The United States is resolved to halt the rise of piracy off the coast of East Africa. That today from President Obama, speaking at the Department of Transportation.

President BARACK OBAMA: And to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks. We have to continue to be prepared to confront them when they arise. And we have to ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes.

SIEGEL: Mr. Obama was speaking one day after Navy SEALs rescued Captain Richard Phillips, who had been held hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Three pirates were killed in the operation, and a fourth is in U.S. custody.

In a moment, we're going to hear more about that fourth pirate and whether he'll face a U.S. court. But first, we are joined by Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, who is commander of the Combined Task Force 151. That's a multinational, counter-piracy task force. She joins us from the USS Boxer at sea.

Welcome to the program, Admiral Howard.

Rear Admiral MICHELLE HOWARD (Commander, Combined Task Force 151, U.S. Navy): Thank you, sir. It's good chatting with you.

SIEGEL: We heard President Obama pledge to prevent future attacks. How will the Navy make good on that promise?

Rear Admiral HOWARD: Sir, we need to continue to work here at sea, particularly strengthen our relationships with our international partners out here, the other navies. And we need to get focused on what the pirates are doing, and try to define where the areas are that they are working, and focus on those areas.

SIEGEL: Is this to be a zero-tolerance, zero-negotiating-for-hostages policy?

Rear Admiral HOWARD: Sir, I can't speak to the policy. I can speak directly to what we did out here in terms of Mr. Phillips. Very clearly, we did hostage negotiation, and we made it clear to the pirates that we needed the return of Mr. Phillips. And there was no discussion of ransom money. This was about having an American returned to his country, and then having the pirates surrender.

SIEGEL: You are commander of a multinational task force. Are all the member nations in that task force united in their zero tolerance of paying ransom money for hostages?

Rear Admiral HOWARD: Sir, I would say each of the nations individually have different approaches. The ones here at sea, we are focused on finding the pirates, countering the pirates, bringing the pirates to justice in each of our nations, or bringing the pirates to justice in a nation that is willing to prosecute. We understand the impact of the piracy on all of the commerce that flows through this area. This needs to be all the different nations of the world working to bring this to resolution.

SIEGEL: There has been talk of taking the fight against piracy to land, into Somalia. What, if anything, can you tell us about that?

Rear Admiral HOWARD: I would say most people would agree that because the pirates live ashore, that is where the crux of the problem is. It will be dependent upon the will of the different nations as to whether or not they are ready to take the fight to the pirates ashore. You can feel quite comfortable that we are ready to fight the pirates at sea.

SIEGEL: At sea. From what you have experienced with the freeing of Captain Phillips and in general, in trying to cope with piracy in that region, would you think that it would be helpful for private shippers to either carry weapons or armed guards on board to repel attacks? Or should they leave that to the U.S. Navy and other navies operating in the area?

Rear Admiral HOWARD: We have found that just by taking some simple steps such as increasing the speed of their ships, using evasive maneuvering, pulling up their acom ladders, using fire hoses over the side, that in many cases, they can evade the pirates and not get to the point where they have to employ some sort of self-defense measure.

SIEGEL: Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, commander of Combined Task Force 151, aboard the USS Boxer. Thank you very much for talking with us, Admiral Howard.

Rear Admiral HOWARD: Yes, sir. Thank you.

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