Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday the Obama administration will take the unusual step of trying to seize pirate financial assets and property, as it works with shippers to thwart hijackers off the coast of Somalia.
The measures outlined by Clinton, part of a new U.S. diplomatic initiative to thwart sea piracy, are largely stopgap and symbolic moves while officials weigh more comprehensive diplomatic and military action.
The exploratory effort to track and freeze pirate assets will be difficult because of the highly localized and informal nature of their economy, which does not often use regulated portions of the international financial system, current and former officials said.
As part of the package, Clinton said the administration will also call for immediate meetings of an international counter-piracy task force to expand naval coordination against pirates.
No ransom payments
She said federal agencies would meet Friday to review the problem and consider its responses ahead of an international conference on Somali piracy and development next week. She also warned that the United States "does not make concessions or ransom payments to pirates."
Clinton acknowledged that the diplomatic steps she outlined Wednesday will not necessarily address piracy's root causes — endemic instability and insecurity on the ground in Somalia.
But she said the moves were critical given the rising number of ship hijackings, including last week's attack on a U.S.-flagged ship that ended with an American hostage freed and three pirates slain by Navy snipers.
"You've got to put out the fire before you can rebuild the house," she told reporters at the State Department. "And, right now, we have a fire raging."
Clinton talked of "going after" pirate bases on the ground in Somalia, a "hot pursuit" policy that was authorized by the U.N. in December but has not yet been undertaken by the U.S. because of liability concerns among military officials. Despite those comments, Clinton did not specifically call for using military force against the pirates.
"These pirates are criminals, they are armed gangs on the sea. And those plotting attacks must be stopped," she said. "We may be dealing with a 17th-century crime, but we need to bring 21st-century solutions to bear."
Clinton acknowledged difficulties ahead in Treasury efforts to locate pirate assets. But she wants the U.S. and others to "explore ways to track and freeze" pirate ransom money and other funds used in purchases of new boats, weapons and communications equipment.
"We have noticed that the pirates are buying more and more sophisticated equipment, they're buying faster and more capable vessels, they are clearly using their ransom money for their benefit — both personally and on behalf of their piracy," she said. "We think we can begin to try and track and prevent that from happening."
But a former Bush administration official who worked on piracy and on steps to stop the financing of terrorist groups at the National Security Council and Treasury said such action would be "extremely difficult" to take.
Financial squeeze questioned
"These are local networks that aren't necessarily putting their cash into bank accounts or attempting to transfer it out of the area," said Juan C. Zarate. "Their assets rarely touch either the formal or informal global financial system."
Unlike international terrorist networks who operate in and raise money from people in regulated economies, the pirates do not. "At this stage, I think this is a noble goal but probably not very realistic," he said.
In addition to the other steps, Clinton said the administration plans to send an envoy to an April 23 conference on piracy in Brussels. The U.S. will also organize meetings with officials from Somalia's largely powerless transitional national government as well as regional leaders in its semiautonomous Puntland region to encourage them to do more to combat piracy on the ground.
The long-term solution will be development and restoring the rule of law in the country, which has been without an effective central government since 1991, Clinton said.
The latest attacks, including last week's assault on the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama and its American crew, have spurred congressional calls for stronger action.
Targeting 'safe havens'
In a letter Wednesday to President Barack Obama, Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, urged efforts to deny "coastal safe havens" used by the pirates.
Skelton, D-Mo., also requested a meeting with administration officials to discuss long-term options for U.S. and international action to prevent piracy and to promote governance and security in Somalia.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said defense officials are searching for new ways to fight piracy by land and sea.
"We are going to look at this from a security standpoint and see if there are things that we can do," Whitman said.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that the high-seas pirate drama shows why the Pentagon should buy more affordable ships, planes and weapons even if they are not perfect.
"As we saw last week, you don't necessarily need a billion-dollar ship to chase down a bunch of teenage pirates," Gates said while visiting Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.