WASHINGTON — Dramatic accounts of the Navy SEALs rescuing the captain of an American cargo ship made headlines around the world in 2009. The military said SEAL snipers killed a trio of pirates in a tense standoff. Three shots, three kills. It was the lethal, coordinated precision that has made SEALs famous and feared.
It was an unbelievable story, with a new retelling that hits the big screen Friday with Tom Hanks playing Capt. Richard Phillips. But the official version that unfolded in the Indian Ocean wasn't as tidy as Hollywood's, or the versions in Phillips' own book or in contemporaneous news reports. In fact, many more than three shots were fired, $30,000 went missing and the integrity of the SEALs was questioned.
The unvarnished story begins on April 8, 2009. Four armed Somali pirates scurried up the side of a large cargo ship, Maersk Alabama, and took the crew and Phillips hostage. In a failed attempt to get the pirates to leave, Phillips gave them $30,000 from the ship safe. The pirates eventually abandoned the Maersk, jumping into a lifeboat and taking the cash and Phillips at gunpoint.
The USS Bainbridge, a destroyer that had responded to the hijacking, gave chase as the pirates headed toward the Somali coast. Days later, a team of SEALs parachuted into the Indian Ocean and boarded the Bainbridge. During the crisis, the Navy persuaded the pirates to let the Bainbridge tow the lifeboat and then tricked the fourth pirate into coming aboard the Bainbridge.
As the Bainbridge reeled in the lifeboat for a better shot, the SEALs took up positions on the back of the warship and trained their sights on the three pirates.
On April 12, the SEALs acted. After a gun unexpectedly went off inside the lifeboat, the SEAL snipers opened fire. Seconds later, a SEAL, possibly two of them, descended the tow rope and onto the lifeboat. He quickly shot the pirates — one of whom was still alive. Former SEAL Matt Bissonnette recounted the episode in his memoir No Easy Day. Bissonnette was deployed aboard the adjacent USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, when the rescue took place.
"Entering the life raft, they quickly and methodically re-engaged each pirate, making sure there was no more threat," Bissonnette recalls. "They found Phillips tied up in the corner unhurt."
In an interview, Phillips said he didn't know if the SEALs fired inside the lifeboat. But after it appeared the shooting had stopped, he said, one of the pirates closest to him was "gasping" and in a "death rattle." The young pirate had two serious chest wounds, he said. He didn't see the other two pirates at the other end of the lifeboat.
Attorney Philip L. Weinstein, who represented the surviving pirate later prosecuted in federal court, said his legal team had an expert examine photographs the government provided of the dead Somalis. The expert estimated about 19 rounds had been fired into the bodies, Weinstein said.
"There were clearly not three shots fired," Weinstein said. "They were riddled with bullets."
Under the Geneva Conventions, an enemy combatant who has been injured so severely that he no longer can fight is supposed to be protected and medically treated even as he is taken into custody. Scott L. Silliman, a professor at Duke University Law School and an expert on wartime legal doctrine, said he believes the SEALs did nothing wrong. He said the SEALs had to make the assumption that the Somalis were armed and a continuing threat. In other words, they were still combatants.
"I think it is pretty clear under the military's rules of engagement that if the SEAL believed he still faced a threat against him he was authorized to use lethal force," he said. "I think it was an appropriate use of force under these circumstances."
The $30,000 was never recovered. As part of the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, SEALs were polygraphed, according to former and current law enforcement and military officials who spoke under the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk about the case. It's not clear if all the SEALs who responded to the hijacking were polygraphed.
Nobody was exempt from questioning. Investigators interviewed Capt. Frank J. Michael, who was the executive officer of the Boxer and among the highest-ranking Navy personnel to enter the lifeboat after Phillips had been saved, a former U.S. official said.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Courtney L. Hillson declined to discuss SEAL tactics or specifics of the case but said: "The case was ultimately closed without evidence of wrongdoing."
Weinstein said his client, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nearly 34 years, had no idea who took the money, and he didn't think the pirates threw it overboard. Weinstein said there were plenty of people who had access to the lifeboat after the shooting stopped. He said the crime scene was "contaminated." According to Phillips' account of the kidnapping, the money could have easily been concealed in a small bag or someone's pockets.
In his book, Phillips writes that while he was held hostage on the lifeboat, a pirate took the money out of the bag and began dividing up into piles. There were "two stacks of hundreds, one of fifties, then twenties, fives, and tens . . . I never saw the money again. Later, when they gave me a sack to lean against, I felt the stacks of money inside, but I never spotted the cash out in the open again."
Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk Line Ltd., said the missing money remains a mystery: "We simply don't know."
In the new film Captain Phillips, viewers shouldn't look to the movie for the complete story. It doesn't depict the aftermath inside the lifeboat or the criminal investigation that followed.
Director Paul Greengrass said the movie wasn't intended to tackle every twist and turn but hews to the truth.
Greengrass said he was aware of the shooting that took place inside the lifeboat and grappled with how much bloodshed to depict. In the end, he made narrative judgments. The final violence wasn't necessary. The result was the same: Phillips was saved, and the pirates were killed.
What happened to the money didn't concern him.
"Movies are not journalism," Greengrass said. "Movies are not history."