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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Here There Be Pirates

We’ve been getting lots — you might even say a vast number — of queries about a new chain e-mail making the rounds. It’s about everyone’s new favorite topic: pirates. And the e-mail simultaneously praises the Navy SEALs who dramatically rescued Capt. Richard Phillips from three Somali pirates April 12 while blaming President Obama for failing to act more quickly. You may have seen the e-mail, even if you’re not one of the 46 people (so far) who have forwarded it to us in the past five days. Most forms of the e-mail begin with some variation of the line:

Having spoken to some SEAL pals here in Virginia Beach yesterday and asking why this thing dragged out for 4 days, I got the following:

1. BHO wouldn’t authorize the BHO wouldn’t authorize the DEVGRU/NSWC SEAL teams to the scene for 36 hours going against OSC (on scene commander) recommendation.
2. Once they arrived, BHO imposed restrictions on their ROE that they couldn’t do anything unless the hostage’s life was in "imminent" danger.

The e-mail continues in the same vein, with the author going on to accuse Obama of hampering and in some cases simply refusing to approve rescue missions.  There are even a couple of ethnic slurs directed at the pirates. Many versions attribute the e-mail to retired Rear Admiral Lou Sarosdy.

We’re still looking into the story, but here’s what we can tell you so far:

For starters, Rear Adm. Sarosdy is a real person, but he is not the author of the e-mail. He told us that he did in fact forward the message to some friends, but he was not the original author. For that matter, Sarosdy told us: "In my line of work, I never met a SEAL." This isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this happen; as we reported in January, Professor Joseph Olson has spent the past eight years attempting to dissociate his name from a chain e-mail that he forwarded after the 2000 election.

As for the more substantive claims in the e-mail – namely, that the Navy’s rules of engagement hindered rescue attempts – those are more difficult to confirm. The Department of Defense is bound by a set of standing rules of engagement. But most of those rules — including the entire section on the defense of U.S. citizens and their property at sea — are classified.

The unclassified portion of the SROE (scroll to page A-4 for the relevant section) does authorize "Defense of the United States, US forces, and, in certain circumstances, US nationals and their property, and/or US commercial assets" (emphasis added). The document also specifies (page A-6) that "[w]hen time and circumstances permit, the hostile force should be warned and given the opportunity to withdraw or cease threatening actions." As for when defense of U.S. nationals is authorized … well, that part is classified. And, in any case, the SROE are in effect only "in the absence of superseding guidance." In other words, the SROE apply only if the National Command Authority — DOD-speak for the president and the secretary of defense — hasn’t issued a more specific set of rules of engagement.

So the short version is that we don’t know what the Navy’s rules of engagement for the encounter actually were. And the Navy isn’t telling. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels did confirm that the rescue operation was a U.S. operation and that as such it would fall under U.S. rules of engagement. But he was unable to confirm any of the specific details in the e-mail, telling us that the Navy "does not comment on rules of engagement."

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor was somewhat more forthcoming, telling us that the e-mail is "wrong," and providing us with a time line of President Obama’s actions during the crisis. We haven’t verified the White House’s claims yet, but we can tell you that several of the e-mail’s charges are beginning to smell a little fishy. So we’re going to keep on digging, and we promise to let you know what we uncover.