Captain Richard Phillips and Maersk Chairman John Clancey appear on the Hill. (Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Call it ships passing in the night.
Captain Richard Phillips, who was held hostage for three days earlier this month after his ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, was captured by Somali pirates, and Maersk Chairman John Clancey arrived on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon with a raft of suggestions for how to safeguard the international shipping industry. What they got instead was an earful from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who want to make attacks on American ships so costly that pirates avoid U.S. vessels.
The biggest point of contention at the hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was the fact that ships don't typically keep weapons onboard. Senators alternately expressed incredulity and impatience with Clancey's explanation for why Maersk and other companies haven't begun arming crews.
"I'm having trouble with this arming issue," said Committee Chair John Kerry, D-Mass. If the U.S. gives guns to relatively untrained security guards who deliver money to banks, he asked, why can't shipping companies arm qualified seafarers?
Clancey responded with the standard maritime shipping lines: That most ports frown upon armed sailors and that bringing weapons onboard would kick off an arms race that the sailors couldn't win. But Kerry and the rest of the committee weren't buying it.
"It costs somebody to do this protection," Kerry said, noting that a military response to piracy is far costlier than giving weapons and training to merchant sailors. In doing so, he struck at the unspoken economic truth about piracy: The industry doesn't want to pay for protections. Hiring armed guards is too expensive for a shipping industry that operates on slim profit margins. And if a company arms a crew, it increases the likelihood that a sailor will be killed in a firefight with pirates, possibly resulting in a costly lawsuit.
Clancey also argued against anti-piracy measures aimed only at American ships, saying in his opening remarks that "piracy affects the global community and requires solutions that work for all stakeholders." But the committee was concerned more with deterring attacks on U.S. ships, both by arming American crews and broadcasting that the U.S. will retaliate militarily -- like the USS Bainbridge's response to the MV Maersk Alabama's hijacking, which left three Somali pirates dead and another in custody.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., was surprised to learn that ships don't actually fly the flags they operate under, having hoped that the Stars and Stripes could deter pirate attacks. When Phillips responded that flying flags would cost thousands of dollars, Wicker shot back: "It might be worth it."
But while the committee remained at loggerheads with its guests, the hearing, which featured Navy veterans Kerry and Ranking Member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and a former secretary of the Navy, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., at times retained a fittingly salty tone. At one point, Kerry asked Phillips what his wife, who was seated behind him, thought about his returning to the high seas.
"She's a good wife," Phillips replied matter-of-factly through his Massachusetts accent. "She supports whatever my decision is."
"You didn't even turn to consult," Kerry replied. "I wish I could get away with that."