Last week, after three Somali pirates holding the American captain of the Maersk Alabama were killed by US Navy SEAL snipers, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California sent a letter to President Obama. In it she noted the danger to US-flagged commercial ships transiting the Gulf of Aden and urged Obama to "place armed security teams on board these vessels to protect the ship and crew from pirate attacks." In a press release Monday, her office quoted Feinstein as saying, "I have listened to a lot of rhetoric and reasons for not doing this and how there must be a political solution to the ongoing crisis within Somalia. But in the meantime, the number of hijackings continues to go up... This is unacceptable."
Rhetoric indeed. I called Feinstein's office several days ago for a clarification: is she suggesting that US-flagged ships carry gun-toting private security contractors? Today came the answer. According to an aide, Feinstein "is still looking at it... still learning about the issue and what our options are." Translation: she has no idea. It's not a response that indicates a great deal of consideration for the pros and cons of arming American merchant ships. More likely, Feinstein was just playing the Washington game, taking advantage of low-hanging political fruit. After all, who doesn't want to protect American crews?
Libertarian hero Ron Paul has gone so far as to recommend the US government hire bounty hunters to chase after Somali pirates. Piracy itself (at least against American ships) is a throwback to the early 19th century, so why not utilize some of the antiquated legal structures from the same period? Paul is calling for the US to resuscitate the principle of "marque and reprisal," a provision in the Constitution that permits the federal government to hire private citizens to patrol international waters.
The fact that politicans are now breathlessly demanding armed security for commercial ships creates an irresistible opportunity for firms like Blackwater (excuse me, "Xe") and others, who are aggressively pursuing new markets for their services. As Dan Schulman and I reported for Mother Jones, Blackwater recently established a small office in Nairobi for the express purpose of courting new business in Africa. Somali pirates are an obvious target. Likewise, British firm Aegis Defence Services--mercenary Tim Spicer's latest project and one that has raked in big bucks in Iraq and Afghanistan--is reportedly in talks with several regional players, including Yemen and Djibouti, about establishing a "command and control center" to counter pirate attacks. Spicer told the Financial Times that his firm would also be willing to place guards on ships and have them "carry firearms with certain control measures on them." What exactly those would be was not explained.
So it seems Feinstein has a decision to make: with the capacity of the US Navy already stretched, will she suggest that commercial ships take Blackwater on board?