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Obama careful, quiet on pirate drama

So far President Barack Obama's role in the U.S. response to an American sea captain's kidnapping by Somali pirates has been careful — and quiet.
/ Source: The Associated Press

So far President Barack Obama's role in the U.S. response to an American sea captain's kidnapping by Somali pirates has been careful — and quiet.

The new commander in chief has been kept abreast of negotiations over the captain's release, but advisers say Obama has delegated the heavy lifting to high-level administration officials and his military commanders.

The president himself has yet to speak publicly about the standoff near the Horn of Africa. On Thursday and Friday, he brushed off reporters' questions.

Instead he has let his top surrogates do the talking, although their comments have been brief, perhaps mindful that their words could influence the sensitive negotiations with the hostage-taking pirates.

'Working around the clock'
Vice President Joe Biden said the administration was working "around the clock" on the matter. Attorney General Eric Holder said the United States will "do what we have to do" to protect U.S. shipping interests against pirates.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "We are bringing to bear a number of our assets ... to resolve the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice."

In West Palm Beach, Fla., Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said the American military will increase its presence near the Horn of Africa "to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days."

Somali pirates tried to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, but the cargo ship crew regained control of the vessel. Even so, the pirates escaped on one of the ship's lifeboats and took Capt. Richard Phillips of Underhill, Vt., hostage.

The president learned of the unfolding crisis shortly after returning from an eight-day trip to Europe and Iraq in the pre-dawn hours on Wednesday.

Obama acting as listener
On Thursday, the second day of the incident, the White House portrayed Obama's role as an attentive listener who was getting frequent progress reports — but not getting directly involved in the decision-making of any operations.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put the focus on an interagency group on maritime safety that includes representatives from the departments of State, Homeland Security, Commerce, Energy, Defense and Transportation, as well as the FBI and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The president has followed the situation closely, has gotten updates throughout yesterday and today," Gibbs said Thursday. "And, obviously, his main concern is for the safety of the captain and the rest of the crew on the ship. And he will continue to receive those updates."

Asked if that was the extent of Obama's involvement, Gibbs said: "At this point, he's staying apprised of the situation."

"Obviously, the Navy and the FBI are to some degree on the scene with their resources," Gibbs added. "And so the resources of our government are deployed in ensuring the safety and security of the captain and the crew."

Since taking office in January, the president has proved willing in many cases to field off-the-cuff questions from reporters at the close of events at the White House, even on matters differing from his focus that day.

But not in this case.

When reporters asked the president directly about the incident on Thursday, he demurred. Instead, he stayed on his message of the day, saying: "Guys, we're talking about housing right now."