WASHINGTON – Before ending a standoff with pirates by firing three fatally precise shots, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers had passed on multiple opportunities to fire.
The marksmen had kept their scopes trained on their Somali targets as prospects for a peaceful resolution seemed to shrivel.
When pirates took Capt. Richard Phillips hostage after attempting to seize his cargo ship last week, the Obama administration confronted the kind of international crisis that, with less favorable outcomes, has done lasting political damage to previous administrations.
Throughout the ordeal, the White House sought to keep Obama politically insulated from its outcome. Even so, the administration’s involvement escalated steadily over the five-day period. Obama was briefed on the crisis at least 18 times, including a National Security Council session on “hostage contingencies” just hours before the snipers fired.
But the crisis seems to have crystallized for the administration Friday, after the White House got word that Phillips had tried to escape.
The attempt had presented an early rescue opportunity for the military. But the Navy had no warning that Phillips was going to attempt to flee. Although a military special operations team had been mobilized, it had not yet arrived, and the Navy had no way to capitalize on Phillips’ gumption.
Instead, the incident underscored the danger Phillips was in as the pirates fired their AK-47s at him as he tried to swim away, then beat him after dragging him back aboard the boat.
Hours later, senior NSC officials met in the White House situation room to draft a series of options to deliver to Obama. Later that night, Obama appears to have issued his first order authorizing the use of lethal force.
But military officials said the White House still hoped for a nonviolent end to the standoff.
A senior military official said the sniper team had multiple opportunities to shoot the pirates. But the team held off, not believing Phillips was in imminent peril, and hoping they could persuade the pirates to give up peacefully.
Military officials had what they thought was a breakthrough Sunday morning, when a small boat manned with SEAL team members approached the lifeboat to check on Phillips and try to talk to the pirates.
The youngest pirate asked the SEALs if he could come aboard the Bainbridge to make a phone call. The pirate had been stabbed in the hand during the initial assault Wednesday on the Alabama, and the wound had become infected.
The military took the pirate aboard, gave him a clean set of clothes and treated his wound. Officers hoped that if they treated that pirate well, the others would surrender.
“Let’s show these guys we are serious about the fact that if you give yourself up you won’t be harmed,” said the military official, explaining the thinking behind the treatment of the surrendering pirate. “It didn’t have the effect we had hoped.”
The pirate did speak to the others over the radio, urging them to give themselves up. But the plea failed and military officials believe his surrender may have made the remaining pirates all the more desperate.
As Sunday dragged on, the seas grew rougher and Navy officers offered to tow the lifeboat behind the Bainbridge, telling the pirates that they would move them to calmer waters.
When the pirates initially agreed to hitch their boat to the Bainbridge on Sunday evening, they were towed from a distance of 200 feet. But the ride was still choppy. The Bainbridge began pulling the boat to within 75 or 80 feet, explaining to the pirates that moving the vessel toward the destroyer would stabilize their boat.
The snipers probably took positions on catwalks or the ship’s rear-facing fantail that obscured them from the pirates’ view. And the Navy made the snipers’ task easier by persuading the pirates to allow themselves to be tethered to the ship.
Aboard the hot and cramped lifeboat, tensions escalated. Watching from the Bainbridge, the sniper team observed an apparent argument between Phillips and one of the pirates. Military officers talking with the lifeboat by radio also noticed the pirates had become more agitated.
“They broke off the last communication,” said the senior military official. “And, again, they said, ‘If we don’t get what we are demanding, we will kill the captain.’ ”
About 90 minutes after tying the lifeboat to the Bainbridge, the SEAL team observed two pirates move away from Phillips and stick their heads out from a hatch. The third pirate raised his weapon at Phillips’ back. Convinced that Phillips was about to be shot, the SEAL commander gave the order to fire.
“If the goal was just to kill these guys, there were opportunities where we could have shot them,” said the senior official. “This was not the outcome we wanted. We wanted those three guys to give themselves up.”