Ron Paul: Bring back private pirate hunters
Agence France-Presse
Published: Wednesday April 15, 2009

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WASHINGTON A congressman from Texas who's known for broadsides at U.S. foreign policy says Somali piracy has an age-old solution" - letters of marque" empowering private citizens to chase the criminals from the oceans.

Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican, and a handful of conservative theorists say it's time the U.S. Congress used the technique, pioneered by European powers in the 18th century as a way to wage naval warfare cheaply.

Major shipping companies should accept a "go at your own risk" approach and not expect government help when they transit through pirate-infested waters, Paul said this week in a video posted on YouTube.

"I don't think just because people go into these dangerous waters that our Army and Navy and Air Force and everything has to follow," the lawmaker and former presidential candidate said, adding that letters of marque would allow merchant ships to sail armed.

"I think if every potential pirate knew that this would be the case, they would have second thoughts because they could probably be blown out of the water rather easily if those were the conditions," said Paul.

The U.S. Constitution explicitly allows the Congress to issue such letters, in effect giving private parties a license to fight hostile seaborne forces such as pirates, in theory without fear of being branded pirates themselves.

Typically, the arrangement offered privateers no reward from the government except a share of the booty recovered, taking all of the risk and attendant costs off the books of frequently cash-strapped global powers.

Some famous beneficiaries included Henry Morgan, famed explorer Francis Drake, as well as William Kidd - who stands as an example of the shadiness of the practice, having been hanged in London in 1701 for piracy and murder.

Lacking a potent navy of its own, the US government relied on such letters in the young republic's early days, notably in the War of 1812 against Britain, and never signed the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing the practice.

During World War II, Washington issued a letter of marque enabling the civilian-operated airship Resolute to patrol for submarines.

But even some modern supporters, like the free-market booster Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, say the concept needs updating to be a feasbile means of countering Somali piracy.

"It's the type of free-market solution to a real problem that Congress should consider but hasn't in any serious way," said CEI senior fellow Eli Lehrer, who urged Congress "to revisit the concept."

If the letters were issued to private pirate hunters rather than used as a way to allow merchant vessels to arm themselves, it would raise the obvious problem of how to reward them: Somali pirates, unlike their Hollywood colleagues, aren't known for treasure chests piled high with gold.

The U.S. government stepped around the problem after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks by placing a multimillion-dollar bounty on the heads of top al Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.

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