The U.S. Navy came to the aid of American ships in April when they were attacked by pirates off the coast of Africa. Now, the shipowners are battling their rescuers, as Congress considers whether to require the Navy to protect American ships traversing high-risk waters.
Maritime companies have been lobbying lawmakers for such help for months, warning that the United States can't afford to let its commercial ships be seen as easy targets by seafaring criminals. In June, the House passed language in a defense authorization bill ordering the military to provide protection. But Navy officials are pushing back, arguing that the ships should be responsible for their own safety -- and, so far, the Senate seems to be listening.
The Senate version of the bill doesn't include the protection requirement. The report on the bill notes that the Senate Armed Services Committee believes the military has to stay actively involved in fighting piracy, but"the industry must develop effective piracy countermeasures, including the employment of private armed shipboard security teams capable of responding to and preventing pirate attacks."
The shipping companies argue that arming their crews, or placing armed private security teams on board, raises complicated legal issues, including their liability under foreign law if someone is harmed. It also forces them to contend with a tangle of international trafficking laws governing the bringing of weapons into foreign ports.
The companies say a relatively small number of ships require security -- three or four a month, most bearing food aid to African nations or U.S. government cargo -- and the easiest way to provide it is for the U.S. military to place small armed crews on board those ships deemed vulnerable to pirate attacks. The idea is similar to the way U.S. air marshals are stationed on board some commercial airplanes.
"We understand the Navy's reluctance. It's a big area of ocean," said M. Clint Eisenhauer, vice president of government relations for Maersk Inc., the owner of the Maersk Alabama, whose captain was taken hostage during a pirate attack in April.
But "in the ideal world," Eisenhauer said, the government would mandate "when force protection is necessary," and the government would provide that security.
The piracy problem in the waters off Somalia has been building for years. But the attack on the Maersk Alabama this April, when Capt. Richard Phillips was taken hostage and held until Navy sharpshooters killed his captors, drew new American attention to the problem. That attack was quickly followed by another on the Liberty Sun, a ship owned by Liberty Maritime Corp. Pirates swore revenge on Americans for the death of those involved in the Maersk Alabama attack.
The owners of both ships are lobbying on the issue. Maersk has an in-house lobbying team, led by Eisenhauer, and also uses law firm K&L Gates. Maersk has paid the firm $60,000 in lobbying fees so far this year, according to lobbying disclosure records. K&L Gates has five lobbyists working on the account, including government affairs counselor Darrell Connor, a one-time staff assistant to the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries who specializes in maritime issues.
Liberty Maritime uses lobbyists from Winston & Strawn, to which it has paid $290,000 so far this year.
Maersk officials, including Phillips, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shortly after the attacks. Others, including Philip Shapiro, Liberty Maritime's president and chief executive officer, testified on the piracy issue before the House subcommittee on coast guard and maritime transportation in May.
The chairman of that subcommittee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sponsored the amendment to the House authorization bill that would put military personnel on certain ships traveling off the coast of Somalia, specifically slow ships that ride low in the water and are easy to board.
"Embarking military security personnel on these vessels makes a loud statement that our nation stands behind these ships and that we will not allow pirates to intimidate us," Cummings said in a statement when the amendment was passed by the House.
Convincing the Senate has been harder. Charlie Papavizas, a Washington partner at Chicago-based Winston & Strawn who specializes in maritime and admiralty issues, said lobbyists have been meeting with key Senate staff members on the issue, though he wouldn't name names.
"Just to be completely blunt about it, there's some skepticism on the Senate side," Papavizas said. "They recognize that we have a problem. It's just that they're getting strong feedback from the Navy that this is not a mission they can take on."
A spokesman for Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declined to comment about the pirate provision in the bill.
The two versions of the defense authorization bill are now in conference, and a final version of the spending bill is almost certain to pass this year.
In an e-mailed statement, a Navy spokesman, Lt. Thomas Buck, said the "scope and magnitude of the problem of piracy cannot be overstated." It involves an area equal to the Mediterranean and Red seas combined, he said.
"There has been a tremendous effort by the navies of the world, but the enormity of the area to patrol means that naval forces alone will not be able to solve the problem," he said, adding that the Navy recommends that ships "employ reasonable self-protection measures" and have professional security.
Shipowners said they shouldn't be expected to navigate the international web of laws that govern their ability to carry weapons into some ports. If that's what the government wants them to do, they say, the United States will have to negotiate with those countries receiving food aid carried by the ships.
"We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, quite frankly," said Shapiro of Liberty Maritime. "We believe it's been the U.S. government's job to ensure the safety and security of U.S.-flagged ships. But if the government is going to not do it for whatever reasons, then they need to empower us and relieve us of the restrictions that prevent us from putting arms on our ships."
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