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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Rescue of Captain Phillips

Q: Did Obama delay the rescue of Captain Phillips?

A: No. Military officials say that the claims being made in a widely circulated chain e-mail are false.


Is this e-mail accurate?

(Note: We’ve substituted the term "pirates" in place of an insulting ethnic reference to Arabs, one that we don’t wish to repeat on our Web site.)

Radm Lou Sarosdy USN Ret. writes:

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 (Pres. Obama) 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.

3. The first time the hostage jumped, the SEALS had the [pirates] all sighted in, but could not fire due to ROE restriction.

4. When the navy RIB came under fire as it approached with supplies, no fire was returned due to ROE restrictions. As the [pirates] were shooting at the RIB, they were exposed and the SEALS had them all dialed in.

5. BHO specifically denied two rescue plans developed by the Bainbridge CPN and SEAL teams.

6. Bainbridge CPN and SEAL team CDR finally decide they have the OpArea and OSC authority to solely determine risk to hostage. 4 hours later, 3 dead [pirates].

7. BHO immediately claims credit for his “daring and decisive” behaviour. As usual with him, it’s BS.

So per our last email thread, I’m downgrading Obama’s performace to D-. Only reason it’s not an F is that the hostage survived.


To start, this message wasn’t actually written by retired Rear Adm. Louis Sarosdy, as some versions of the e-mail have it. We already debunked that much in an earlier item on The FactCheck Wire. The admiral said he passed the message along but didn’t author it and doesn’t know who did. In fact, he told us in a telephone interview: "In my line of work, I never even met a SEAL."

The content of the e-mail is also flatly contradicted by both White House and Pentagon officials. Indeed, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, told the Washington Times that “I don’t recognize” the information contained in the e-mail. That’s what two different military officers at the Pentagon told us, too, though they spoke to us only on the condition that we not identify them.

 No 36-Hour Delay

Let’s take the claims in order. Our sources said it is just not true that there was a 36-hour delay in sending in SEAL teams. Although Phillips was taken hostage on April 8, the Pentagon didn’t actually take charge of the situation until the U.S.S. Bainbridge arrived on the scene on April 10. At that point, Pentagon officials told us, the captain of the Bainbridge requested the resources to resolve the situation. By 8:00 p.m. (Washington time) on April 10, President Obama had authorized the redeployment of a SEAL team from Kenya to the Bainbridge. Pentagon officials told us that the request worked its way up and back down the chain of command in a few hours, not a day-and-a-half, as the e-mail states.

Navy SEALS in a 2007 training jump. Photo courtesy of the Department of DefenseLater Friday night, the Pentagon requested that SEAL Team 6 – the Navy’s counter-terrorism unit, which is also known as United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU – also be deployed to the Bainbridge. Obama approved that request, as well. But the team had to be flown in from its headquarters in Little Creek, Va. – a trip of about 8,000 miles. According to MSNBC, SEAL Team 6 parachuted into the ocean at night on Saturday, April 11 and was taken aboard the Bainbridge.

Nor did the president himself establish the specific rules of engagement for the encounter. Military officials told us that the president laid out two guiding principles: that the on-scene commander should attempt to resolve the conflict peacefully but should take appropriate action if the captain’s life was in danger. But the president did not “micromanage” the rules of engagement, our sources said. Gen. Jones supported that assessment, telling the Washington Times that "I think everybody played their part well and there wasn’t any overstepping on anybody’s equities."

Moreover, it’s simply false that the SEALs could have taken action when Capt. Phillips attempted to escape. That’s because, according to our sources and independent news accounts as well, the SEAL team hadn’t yet arrived at the time of the attempted escape.

The claim that the White House rejected two rescue attempts is equally false, according to Gen. Jones. Nor did the on-scene commander decide on his own to rescue Phillips. Jones said the president had already given that authorization on April 10 – two days before the rescue. Vice Adm. William Gortney, commander of Naval forces in the Middle East, told reporters the same thing in an April 12 press conference. According to Gortney, "[T]here were standing orders that if [Captain Phillips] was at risk and we on scene determined that he was under imminent danger, to go ahead and take decisive action."

Gortney went on to explain that "[t]he 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." That caution is perhaps understandable in light of the April 10 French military action, in which a commando raid on a ship captured by pirates left a hostage dead.

We’re not sure where the e-mail comes from. It could actually be from a SEAL who wasn’t aware of what was going on at the Pentagon, the White House or the Bainbridge. Or it could be from someone who has read too many Tom Clancy novels. Either way, we suggest that if you get this particular e-mail in your inbox, you give it the old heave-ho.

– Joe Miller


Gertz, Bill. "Obama Ok’d 2 SEAL Teams for Pirates." Washington Times. 22 Apr 2009.

Miklaszewski, Jim. "SEAL E-mail Criticizing Obama Is Bogus." MSNBC. 21 Apr 2009.

U.S. Department of Defense. "DoD News Briefing With Vice Adm. Gortney From Bahrain." Transcript. 12 Apr 2009.