'This Week' Transcript: Pirate Standoff

ABC's Jim Sciutto and Adm. Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard on "This Week."

ByABC News
March 22, 2009, 7:06 AM


APRIL 12, 2009




[*] STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning and welcome to THIS WEEK. High speed showdown. Pirates kidnap an American captain.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible) dying so we can live.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Media focus is singular. What do we have to do to help with the process to bring Captain Phillips home?


STEPHANOPOULOS: With hundreds of attacks, tens of millions in ransom, an ancient scourge is now a modern threat. Is force the answer, terrorism a fear? We'll get the latest from Africa and Washington.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You'll no longer have that sense of freefall.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: What you're starting to see is glimmers of hope.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Will talking up the economy help turn the corner? That and all the week's politics plus the Obama's new puppy on our roundtable with George Will, Newt Gingrich, ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper, the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman of "The New York Times" and Ruth Marcus from "The Washington Post".

And as always the Sunday funnies.


STEPHEN COLBERT, TALK SHOW HOST: I am no fan of President Obama. He is a socialist. If I wanted to share my wealth with my friends, I'd have friends.


ANNOUNCER: From the heart of the nation's capital. THIS WEEK with ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos. Live from the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Happy Easter and Happy Passover. For those of you tuning in this morning expecting to hear from Pastor Rick Warren, we were too, but the pastor's representatives canceled moments before the scheduled interview, saying that Mr. Warren is sick from exhaustion. We hope he recovers quickly and we're going to turn instead to the hostage standoff off the coast of Somalia.

The U.S. ship Maersk Alabama is back now, its crew safe onboard but the captain, Richard Phillips, continues to drift towards land in a lifeboat with four Somali pirates demanding safe passage and $2 million in ransom.

Senior foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto is on the scene. And so Jim, we know that the crew is OK right now. That the captain is drifting toward land but are there any active negotiations for his release?

JIM SCIUTTO, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: We heard yesterday that there was an impasse to the negotiations reached. The Somalis offering to forego the ransom as long as the pirates were not arrested. Contacts with Somali elders who were doing the negotiations for the pirate side have told us that wasn't good enough for the U.S. side. We've spoken with the Defense Department. They insist they're continuing the negotiations until Captain Richard Phillips is released.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And Jim, the big concern is if a lifeboat gets to land and the pirates spirit Captain Phillips off, they're never going to be able to find him. What is the military doing to prevent that from happening?

SCIUTTO: Well, frankly there's not a lot that the U.S. can do. Those three U.S. warships are hovering around the lifeboat, keeping it within site and also preventing other pirate motherships from getting close to the lifeboat, presumably to take the captain and their captors away.

But they can't physically block the ship from going ashore so this is becoming, George, really a race against time.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And is there any thought being given at all to actually storming the lifeboat? We've seen the French have done that twice in recent days with French boats.

SCIUTTO: I think the situation has become so tense that they know that the risk of that kind of operation has always been high. Yesterday when a U.S. Navy launch came just close to the lifeboat, the pirates responded by firing warning shots. I think that was a sign really of the danger you're in.

Also on Friday you saw a sense of that when French special forces raided a French ship that had been kept by hijackers and one of the hostages was killed in that operation. That is the outcome certainly that the U.S. Navy wants to avoid.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So it's watching and waiting for now. Jim Sciutto. Thanks.

And for more on this we are now joined by one of the top U.S. officials in the anti-piracy effort. Admiral Thad Allen, the command of the U.S. Coast Guard. Welcome back to THIS WEEK.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's stick with the situation on the ground -- or at sea right now off the coast of Somalia and Kenya. Is there anything else U.S. officials can do besides waiting and hoping that negotiations bear fruit?

ALLEN: Well, George, the way the command and control structure is set up, General Petraeus's Fifth Fleet is actually running the operations. He is what is called the supported commander. General Ward of the Africa Command is a supporting commander, as is the rest of government.

And there really is a whole of government approach going on right now. Everybody is working the problem. But the tactical operations, obviously, are being directed by Fifth Fleet.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you believe that they are -- knowing what you know about tactical operations, they are actually following the best practices at this point?

ALLEN: They are. And again, that's General Petraeus's issue there. We're very close the Maersk Corporation. I talked to the CEO, John Reinhart, this morning. Of course, you know, our big concern is for the safety of the master.

And we really feel for his family and we are trying to stay in close contact with him and work through what we would call the interagency to make sure this is a whole government approach.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And we do know that he is safe?

ALLEN: They have indications in the last 24 hours, yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So taking the broader problem of piracy in the last three months in that part of the world, we've seen 50 ships, this is the first time a United States ship has been overtaken by pirates. How much worse is the problem getting and what kind of a national security threat does it pose?

ALLEN: Well, it definitely poses a threat to shipping locally there. We'd had problems in the past with piracy, that was in the Straits of Malacca, but we've done a very good job internationally of reducing that threat through regional cooperation, which is the key, working with the private sector and the shipping companies to improve the amount of information that's being passed and actually improve what we would call situational awareness or maritime domain awareness.

A lot of these threats could just be avoided.

STEPHANOPOULOS: When you say that, situational awareness, how would these threats be avoided? What kind of tools do the shippers have at their disposal?

ALLEN: Well, for the past several years, the United Kingdom has led a regional consortium where they pass the information on sightings, best routing and so forth. We're in the process of helping create a code of conduct for merchant ships so they can minimize the threats.

Slow ships with low freeboard present a much greater target than faster ships and higher freeboard, things like that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And this has opened up the whole debate over whether or not these kinds of ships should be armed, whether the crew should have weapons, very similar to the debate we saw about whether the pilots in cockpits should have -- should be armed after 9/11.

ALLEN: I think that's pretty problematic for reasons that you -- training certification, how you apply standards, the discussions I've had with the private sector and the shipping companies really don't favor that right now.

Those types of actions should be in the hands of professionals.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Why don't they want it?

ALLEN: Well, again, it's an issue of putting more responsibilities on the crew. There's a training and certification issue. And again, that's not what these mariners are trained to do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But I guess you could argue that if this -- if piracy is a real threat, then we should have trained people onboard who can take them out. Or is the other problem simply that the pirates will always be able to outgun them, that they can launch a shoulder-fired missile from several hundred yards?

ALLEN: Well, one can't speculate on what kind of threats or capabilities may operate in the future. But I do know that trying to put that type of responsibility on a crew is a very significant responsibility and should be carefully thought through.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So there's no real effort to make that happen right now?

ALLEN: Well, there is no international requirement under law, or international treaty to do that, no.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what else is the United States government now doing to get at the broader threat? We know that most of these pirates are coming from Somalia. And we know that in the past, at least, the approach towards piracy was to go after pirates where they live, not on sea by on land, does that make sense now?

ALLEN: I think the real issue is to create an international legal framework where there are consequences for these actions. For the past six to 12 months, we in the United States Coast Guard, with our other partners in government, have been working through entities like the International Maritime Organization to gain the U.N. Security Council resolutions that authorize entry into Somalian territorial waters and land to protect world food shipments.

What you really have to have is a coordinating mechanism that ultimately brings these pirates to court where they can be held accountable.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, but meanwhile, the owners of these ships have -- seem to be taking completely different approach over the last year, paying more than $40 million in ransom. They seem to have accepted this as a cost of doing business and they'd rather pay it than confront the pirates.

ALLEN: That's the reason I think we need to create a viable, effective, legal mechanism to hold these people accountable and so that doesn't have to be their options.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And is -- the standard line coming out of the United States government right now is that these pirates are criminals, pure and simple. But is there any concern that they are creating ties with terrorist groups or groups tied to al Qaeda?

ALLEN: Well, I wouldn't want to speculate on their ties. But these are criminal acts. These are acts -- crimes against the Law of the Sea Treaty, and they're also crimes against the 1988 convention in Rome, Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

There is ample legal requirements and jurisdiction to be able to take action against these pirates. And that's what we should be doing.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. Admiral, thank you very much for your time this morning.

ALLEN: Thank you. thanks