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DoD News Briefing With Vice Adm. Gortney From Bahrain

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command Vice Adm. William Gortney
April 12, 2009

                 (Note:  The Admiral talks via telephone from Bahrain.) 

 

STAFF:  Well good afternoon and thank you for joining us on such short notice on this Easter Sunday for what is very good news indeed. 

 

The successful rescue of Captain Richard Phillips.  As you may have heard by now Capt. Phillips is currently safe and aboard the USS Boxer.  To bring us up to date and provide us with some additional details about the rescue operation will be Vice Admiral William Gortney who is the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and he is going to join us today via telephone from his headquarters in Bahrain. 

 

We had planned to bring via satellite this to you; there is a torrential rain storm taking place right now in Bahrain and we are not able to affect the satellite uplink at this time.  So we decided that we would go ahead with this and not delay it any longer though and so

 

Admiral, thank you for joining us and I know it has been a very long past few days as you been working through this situation and we appreciate you taking the time today to give us an overview of the operation and then take a few questions from us.

 

So Admiral with that let me turn it over to you.

 

ADM Gortney: Thank you very much and good evening here from Bahrain.  As was mentioned, U.S. Naval forces rescued Captain Richard Phillips, the Master of the motor vessel Maersk-Alabama at 7:19 p.m. local time here in Bahrain and 12:19 p.m. eastern standard time and we are happy to say that Captain Phillips is safe.

 

After his rescue he was taken aboard the Norfolk Virginia based guided missile destroyer the USS Bainbridge and later transferred to the San Diego based USS Boxer.

 

I want to say at the outset that I could not be more proud to represent all the men and women in uniform who worked tirelessly to make this rescue possible. 

 

I would be remise if I didn’t mention the actions of Captain Phillips and all the merchant mariners of Maersk-Alabama, they were heroic.

 

They fought to regain the control of their ship and Captain Phillip’s selflessly put his life in the hands of those armed criminals in order to protect his crew and we here at 5th Fleet are honored to call them shipmates.

 

 

I now would like to take a few moments to paint a sketch of what happened the past few days.

 

We are still collecting all of the details and the specifics it is still early but we think it important to let you all know what we have as early as possible.

 

Armed Somali pirates attack the American flagged vessel Maersk-Alabama several hundred miles of the east coast of Somalia.

 

                The pilots took the crew hostage at gunpoint and they were armed with automatic weapons and small arms.

 

And Captain Phillips’ brave crew of Civilian Mariners fought back and took one of the pirates hostage and took their ship back.

 

Captain Phillips was taken hostage himself by the pirates at gunpoint and transferred to the ships lifeboat.

 

He attempted to escape yesterday and his captors shot at him, but he was uninjured and was recovered back on board the lifeboat.

 

While working throughout the negotiation process tonight, the on-scene commander from the Bainbridge made the decision that the Captain’s life was in immediate danger and the three pirates were killed.

 

The one pirate who surrendered earlier today is being treated humanely.  His counterparts who chose to continue to fight paid with their lives and the Department of Justice is working out the details with the intent of holding him accountable for his actions.

 

Before I take your questions, I hope Captain Phillips won’t mind if I share a note from his wife that was delivered to him this morning by the Sailors from the U.S. Bainbridge while he was still being held captive.

 

The note said, Richard, your family loves you, your family is praying for you, your family is saving a chocolate Easter egg for you unless your son eats it first.

 

Well, Mrs. Phillip, keep your son away from those Easter eggs, his Dads headed home. 

 

And I’d like to take your questions now.

 

                STAFF: Thank you admiral, we’ll get started here and we’ll start with Andrew. 

 

                Go ahead.

 

                Q             Andrew Gray from Reuters, can you give us a little bit more detail about the events that led to the freeing of Captain Phillips, in particular, why did the Captain of the Bainbridge feel that Captain Phillip’s life was in danger and specifically what action was taken that led to the death of those three pirates?

 

 

ADM GORTNEY:  Well, we had very clear guidance and authority that at any time the on-scene commander felt that Captain Phillips life was in danger that they could take action to make sure that it was not.  And that is what occurred at this particular time.

 

The specifics, I’m not able to discuss just yet.

 

Q             Admiral, it’s Tom Bowman with NPR, was one of the pirates on board the Bainbridge communicating with the commanding officer at the time, is that correct?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Correct.  One of the pirates got off on to one of our rigid inflatable boats and onto the Bainbridge, got off the lifeboat and we were working with him in the negotiation process.

 

                Q             (inaudible) …Philips life was in danger, was it in talks with this pirate or something else, can you just elaborate on this a little bit?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Yes Sir, yes Sir.  His life was in danger because the pirates were armed with AK-47s and had small caliber pistols and they were pointing the AK-47 at the Captain.

 

Q             The first time something like that had happened or what?

 

ADM GORTNEY: They actually had shot – they shot at him earlier yesterday when he attempted to escape, jumped in the water, they actually shot in the water at him.

 

Q             But, I mean, I’m sorry, if you could – how did this escalate?  I mean you were talking with one of the pirates on board the Bainbridge.  Were those talks just not going anywhere, was he being obstinate?  Can you characterize how this happened?

 

ADM GORTNEY: We were going through a deliberate hostage negotiation process, which takes a significant period of time, and at periods during that time, tensions will go up and tensions will deescalate.

 

At this particular point when the first pirate got off, we were in I would say a de-escalatory lower point of the negotiations.

 

Later this evening, it got heated and the on-scene commander thought that -- interpreted hostile intent by the pirates and took the appropriate action.

 

 

Q             I mean the pirate on board the Bainbridge, was he basically saying give us money or we'll kill Phillips?

 

ADM GORTNEY: I’m not at liberty to discuss what he was saying at this time.

 

Q             Admiral, Peter Spiegel with the Wall Street Journal, I want to get back, you mentioned the captain being in the water and getting shot at.  There was the incident that’s been widely reported from Friday where he jumped off and was shot at the water. Are you saying there was a second incident where this happened which ratcheted up the pressure?  Because we've also seen reporting that he tried to escape again and was in the water.

 

ADM GORTNEY: There was one attempt and my understanding…trying to get my days correct, but that was yesterday when he went in to the water.

 

Q             Yesterday being Saturday. Okay.

 

Q             Admiral, Laura Jakes from the Associated Press, there have been some reports that there is some ransom that was part of the negotiation, some $2 million. Can you can speak to that a little bit?

 

ADM GORTNEY: There was a demand for ransom, the exact amount I’m not sure about. And to make their point, they were threatening throughout to kill the captain. But exact number, I’m not familiar with.

 

Q             Balparky, 2 million, was it a high number?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Not sure of the exact number. But I’m sure it was a significant amount of money.

 

Q             Off the table from the get go, that's not something that the United States would have considered?

 

ADM GORTNEY:  The United States' government policy is to not negotiate.

 

Q             Admiral, is it safe to report that Navy SEALS were involved in this rescue without going into too much detail? Would it be at least safe to say that and where are you holding the captain now and where are you planning on taking him? And can you talk a little bit about any options you may have for trying him for his crimes?

 

ADM GORTNEY:  The Navy SEALS are part of our special operations forces and they were all involved in the rescue attempt. And the second part of your question again, sir?

 

Q             Where are you holding him now, the one captive pirate, and where are you taking him and what are your options for trying him for his crimes?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Currently we are moving him from the "USS Bainbridge" on to the "USS Boxer" where we have a little bit better detainee facilities and we're working with the justice department to determine the ultimate disposition of him.

 

Q             Admiral, Chris Lawrence from CNN. What did the navy learn from the captain's first attempt to escape and when the navy sailors got close and the pirates shot at them, you know, what tactically did the navy learn about during those incidents that may have helped in this rescue?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Well, I haven't spoken to the sailors that were involved on point specifically, but throughout the chain of command we understood, it was a clear understanding that it was a very dangerous situation and these pirates were very, very serious. And we had to take a deliberate, slow, deliberate measured response as we worked our way through the negotiation process.

 

Q             Admiral, this is Courtney Kube from NBC news, after learning of the captain's rescue today, several of the sailors on board the "Maersk-Alabama" said that for more than a week before they were hijacked, they were complaining of pirate attempts and pirate harassment. They were saying they needed security and wondering where the navy was. Where was the navy? Were you aware of problems that they were having, any kind of security issues they were having prior to the pirates hijacking the vessel and can you talk a little bit more about the security in that area?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Sure. That part of the -- on the east coast of Somalia is a vast stretch of water. To put it in perspective, it starts from -- draw a box from Houston to Chicago to New York City down to Jacksonville, Florida.

 

It's an immense body of water. When the "Maersk-Alabama" had their problem, our closest vessel from all the navies that were out there, we have 16 navies patrolling those waters, and the closest one was the "USS Bainbridge" and it was over 300 nautical miles.

 

The day before, they had made an announcement through their company that they were fending off some pirates and then when -- and they said it was under control.

 

And then the next day when this one that they ultimately got on board, we were closing Bainbridge as quickly as we can, but 22 knots, 300 nautical miles, it take as while to get there.

 

And there's about a 10 minute window from when the pirates are able to get on board that we have time to act. Up in the Gulf of Aden, north on the north coast of Somalia where it's a little bit more concentrated, we've had more successful attempts when a ship was being attempted to be pirated where one of the navies of the 16 navies down that are down there that could react and assist with breaking up the attempt. But out on the east coast of Somalia, such a vast area, we simply do not have enough resources in order to cover all those areas.

 

Q             You are aware of one day prior to the actual pirate -- successful pirate attempt, you were aware of unsuccessful attempts of pirate harassment of the ship. Was there anything prior to that and it's fair to say that the navy did start moving in assets towards the Alabama at that time with 24 hours prior to the actual attempt?

 

ADM GORTNEY: I’m only familiar with the attempt the day before, and there are piracy attempts just this month alone, I think we're up over 18 or 19.

 

In the last three weeks, just 18 or 19 piracy attempts both in the Gulf of Aden and in the Somali basin where this ship was pirated.

 

So it's not unusual for a ship to report that it's being -- there's a piracy attempt. That's nothing unusual. And recently we've had more -- unfortunately recently we've had more successful attacks.

 

Q             Admiral, Justine again from FOX, it's been reported that the order to take action came from President Obama. Is that accurate, did the order come from the top, and would you say that action was needed because the ship was getting closer to shore? Was that also another reason that the timing was now for this rescue effort?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Our authority came, you're correct, our authorities came directly from the president.

 

And the number one authority for incidents if we were going to respond was if the captain's life was in immediate danger. And that is the situation in which our sailors acted.

 

Q             A couple questions, first of all, a question follow-up on that one. But that was a standing authority from the president. He wasn't on the phone with the skipper of the Bainbridge saying, oh, yeah, go ahead and at that time shot.

 

ADM GORTNEY: Correct.  That’s correct.  Yes.

 

Q             Also, if you could help us understand a little better about how this all went down. Were the three pirates in the capsule on the lifeboat or outside? Where was Captain Phillips at the time this was going on? And where were the sharp shooters? In other words, did they make themselves visible and available for the sharp shooters to then take the shot?

 

ADM GORTNEY: You are correct that -- you are correct that there were standing orders that if he was at risk and we on scene determined that he was under imminent danger, to go ahead and take decisive action.

 

The intent of the entire time was a deliberate, slow deliberate process to let the negotiation process work itself out to a nonviolent end.

 

And unfortunately, that did not occur.

 

The specifics of where everybody was, I do not have at this particular time, but they would not have been able to take the shots if the captain was anywhere at risk from being hit by one of our snipers.

 

Q             If I could just follow-up. Was this an actual assault by somebody like the navy seals on the lifeboat itself, or was this a target of opportunity? Understanding that they presented a standing threat to the captain's life, was this a target of opportunity for those sharp shooters?

 

ADM GORTNEY: I want to make one thing perfectly clear, that the on-scene commander determined that the captain was in imminent danger. If he was not in imminent danger, they were not to take this sort of action they were supposed to let the negotiation process work it out.

 

The on-scene commander took it as the captain was this imminent danger and then made that decision and he had the authorities to make that decision and he had seconds to make that decision.

 

Q             One more brief follow-up. And that imminent danger as you seemed to say earlier was that the captain, in fact, had an ak-47 aimed at him when this went down.

 

ADM GORTNEY: I would have to say yes, that he had a weapon aimed at him and the on-scene commander saw that the weapon was aimed at him and took it that that pirate was getting ready to use that weapon. That would be my interpretation of imminent danger and I think that's exactly what happened.

 

Q             Admiral, it’s Kirit Radia with ABC news, could you tell us a little bit more about the condition of Captain Phillips at this points, whether he was at any point injured, can you describe him at all, and could you also give us any details about the captured pirate, whether he's being cooperative or what he's saying and how he's acting at this time?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Yes, the captain is in good health. He showered up and a clean set of clothes.  Feeling much better. We've had an opportunity to call home. He's on boxer.

 

He declined once he was on board that he needed anything to eat. We thought that was a good sign. We gave him a medical examination and he's in good health. The captive, it's my understanding, is being cooperative. He's being well cared for, well fed, and a medical examination, as well.

 

Q             Mike Mount with CNN, is there a way you can give us kind of just a quick time line of how things occurred from the time that the one pirate came aboard until the end of the event here?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Those are the sort of specifics I just don't have at this particular time. I'm sorry.

 

Q             Admiral, I think a lot of people are kind of wondering why these huge navy war ships would have a problem overtaking a small lifeboat. Can you kind of walk us through some of the challenges from your point of view on that?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Yes. If you've seen pictures of the lifeboat, it's a very standard robust lifeboat that most of the merchant ships have, that it’s fully enclosed, about an 18 to 20 foot boat, fully enclosed, would not -- self-righting on the back end of the vessel to get into it, it's a three dog hatch, very, very hard, very water tight; designed to be very sustainable in very rough waters for very long period of time.

 

That would make it a very, very difficult target to get on board in a situation like this. And as a result, it takes a while to work through the negotiation process just even to be able to communicate and we were communicating with them with a handset radio for the first day.

 

Q             Admiral, again, we're just trying to find out how these three pirates came to die. Were they shot by snipers or someone else from the Bainbridge or were they shot by navy personnel aboard the rib that apparently was close to the lifeboat?

 

ADM GORTNEY: They were on the Bainbridge.

 

Q             The snipers were aboard the Bainbridge?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Yes.

 

Q             Did he jump away at the last moment provide providing the opportunity? There are some reports he jumped away from the lifeboat.  Did that happen?

 

ADM GORTNEY: I’m sorry, say that again.

 

Q             There are some reports that Phillips jumped away from the lifeboat providing a better opportunity for the snipers. Is that true?

 

ADM GORTNEY: I don't have that specifics just yet, sir. I'm hearing the same conflicting reports from what's being fed to me through my channels and what I’ve heard on the TV. So I went back to ask to clarify that point.

               

Q             We assume the folks who did the shooting were the seals who came from Africa. The four seals correct?

 

ADM GORTNEY:  They're part of our special operations forces and where we bring them from is classified.

 

Q             But again, we know there aboard there were four of them. Is it true take they were the ones that did the shooting?

 

ADM GORTNEY:  I’m not certain which ones did the shooting.

 

Q             Admiral, Andrew Gray from Reuters, a couple more points of clarification. Can you say how far away the Bainbridge was from the lifeboat at the time this happened? And can you give us a picture of the sea conditions at the time?

 

ADM GORTNEY: The lifeboat was about 25 to 30 meters from the Bainbridge. And the conditions were deteriorating. (Inaudible) …the exact sea state I’m not certain.

 

Q             You cut out for a moment there. The sea conditions were deteriorating?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Yes, they were getting worse. Sea conditions were getting worse, but the exact sea state, I don't have.

 

Q             Admiral, you mentioned the involvement of the rib. You can talk about when that was last in the water and was that a regular back and forth between the Bainbridge and the lifeboat, and if you can talk more generally, also, about the navy's task there. You mentioned that you were short of resources, that the area is vast. Is that your best military advice, that we should be stepping up the amount of resources dedicated to this, or I think when you spoke maybe about six months ago go of after the Saudi tanker was taken over, you were I think much concerned about dealing with the pirates on land and that was a much more doable mission. Can talk more big picture, as well?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Well we, the ultimate solution for piracy is on land. Piracy around the world stems from activity where there is lawlessness, lack of governance, economic instability; things of that nature. And wherever you have that, you’re going to have criminal activity at sea.

 

We had been working on the prevention efforts at sea, pulling in more international navies, working with the shipping industry to use more defensive measures making themselves hard targets and then work the judicial process. For the last three months, we've sent over 130 pirates into the judicial process.

 

But it wasn't having an effect of drawing the number of attempts down. As a result of our activity and a lot of navy presence up in the Gulf of Aden, we saw both attempts and successful attacks go down in the Gulf of Aden, but in the last couple of weeks, we saw activity; attempts and successful attacks occur on the east coast of Somalia were this one did.

 

We had already sent warnings to the shipping industry to avoid that area to be farther out from the coast of Somalia, and we were moving ships there in that direction to work a more focused ops to try more presence down there to reduce of number of attempts.

 

Q             (inaudible) the issue of the small rib that you said was being used to go back and forth; was that in the water at the time, this rescue attempt happened, and how often had you been using that to go back and forth from the Bainbridge to the lifeboat?

 

ADM GORTNEY: We had been from the beginning as soon as the pirates would let us be using the rib to provide the pirates and the captain food, water, and medicine if they needed medicine.

 

And so we were -- and transferring food to them, transferring water, taking the captain some new clothes, that was on going. 

 

It was a mechanism to provide confidence and destabilize and use the deliberate process to hopefully get to a nonviolent end.

 

Q             That was not used in this last operation?

 

ADM GORTNEY: At this particular point, we were towing the lifeboat hopefully into some safer waters where the sea state wasn't quite so rough.

 

Q             Was the Bainbridge toeing it or was the rib towing it?

 

ADM GORTNEY: No, the Bainbridge was towing it. The ribs were not towing it. The Bainbridge was towing it.  It was about 25 meters behind the Bainbridge. And the sniper's position on the fan-tail of the Bainbridge observed one of the pirates in the pilot house and two pirates with their head and shoulders exposed and one pirates had the ak-47 leveled at the captain's back.

 

STAFF: Let's give some other folks a chance.

 

Q             Mike again from CNN. You had said earlier that this was not really the way you wanted to end it. Are you concerned at all that this is going to send a message out to other potential pirates and they may essentially escalate their hijackings to a more violent level traditionally? They aren’t very violent towards crews. Very few people have died in the past. Are you concerned that this will escalate attacks with pirates?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Yes. There's second and third order effects to every action. And this could escalate violence in this part of the world. No question about it.

 

Q             I'm unclear why this situation with the pirate who’s now in U.S. Custody, U.S. Navy custody, why he's not going to almost immediately into the Kenyan justice system after this agreement. What's the difference between his situation and previous judicial instances with previous pirates?

 

ADM GORTNEY: The incident is just now wrapping up. We're just now getting the suspected pirate that's on Bainbridge now over to boxer. And working with the justice department about where we want to take him and for what disposition. We have multiple avenues. We could possibly bring him back here to the United States and try him since it was an American flagged vessel. We could take him to Kenya where the justice department wants to take him, we're waiting to find out.

 

Q             And this may sound like a strange question, but the remains of the three pirates that were killed, would the U.S. Navy return them to Somalia?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Yes, we will have to work with the government and determine what they want to do with the remains.

 

Q             Admiral, Chris Lawrence from CNN again. When the navy rescued Captain Phillips, did they take him directly off of the lifeboat or did they pull him from the water?

 

ADM GORTNEY: We had a -- put a rib in the water and put him on to the rib and then transferred him from the rib on to the Bainbridge.

 

Q             Was he tied up at the time?

 

ADM GORTNEY: He was not tied up. We would not transport him tied up from lifeboat to rib, rib to Bainbridge. We would untie him, ensure there's a life vest on him to make sure that he was transported safely.

 

Q             And you mentioned that the snipers on the fan-tail observed the head and the shoulders of the pirates that were exposed. Obviously that's only a partial view. But with the training of these snipers, how close was Captain Phillips to them and what goes into their training that makes them think that is a shot that they can definitely take and successfully complete?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Well, the entire length of the boat is no more than 18 feet. So the captain couldn't have been any more than 18 feet from the farthest pirate. But they’re very, very well trained and they're not going to take a shot that is going to put the hostage at risk. And so we pay a lot for their training and they earned, we earned, got a good return on their investment tonight.

 

Q             You keep using the term negotiate just like the Maersk Company did. But pentagon officials I talked with said we don't negotiate, we communicate with the pirates. And I’m wondering, what you were negotiating. You were basically saying let the captain go and we’re going to arrest you, isn’t that right?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Well, it's a hostage negotiation. So when I say negotiation, it's a hostage negotiation process. It's not that we are negotiating for money. Please don't misconstrue what I said here, but it's a hostage negotiation process and those were the words that I was trying to mean.

 

Q             Let him go and you'll be arrested, correct?

 

ADM GORTNEY: We were seeking to get the safe return of the Captain. And in that process, you explain to them that there aren't many good options by not giving up and giving us the Captain back.  Wearing the captors down and letting time, in that deliberate process, work for us. And that's what we were trying to do.

 

Q             (inaudible) It got heated with the pirate on the Bainbridge, right?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Pardon, Sir?

 

Q             It got heated with the pirate on the Bainbridge when you basically told him there were no options.

 

ADM GORTNEY: Well, throughout, you try and convey in a sense that there are very few options available to them, whether the fourth pirate on the Bainbridge or not, that's just another process and just another avenue as we went down the negotiation process.

 

Q             Is Phillips being taken to Mombasa?

 

ADM GORTNEY: We are working to transport to get Captain Phillips home to his family as quickly as possible.

 

Q             Admiral, just quickly. was Captain Phillips tied up at any point?

 

ADM GORTNEY: Captain Phillips was tied up inside the lifeboat, that is correct.

 

STAFF: Admiral, I want to thank you again for taking some time. I know you're tired. I know you've been working long hours to bring this to resolution. I know that you don't have all the details of the operation, that that's still being fully developed back at your headquarters, so I appreciate you taking the time and being willing to come out and share at least the preliminary results of this military operation with us. So thank you very much. And before I close, let me just make sure there isn't anything that you want to add before we end it here.

 

ADM GORTNEY: No we're just really glad to get the captain back, heading home to his family. And we're very proud of our sailors, and our marines and our airmen and soldiers that made this all possible.