Letters of Marque

The recent events of privacy such as the attack on the Liberty Sun or the more well know situation with the Maersk Alabama has me thinking about pirates and their cousins, the privateer.

There is a very thin line between pirates and privateers. A pirate attacks ships in open water for the purpose of financial gain. So does a privateer. But a privateer does so with the knowledge and consent of a national power.

A privateer, or corsair, is a vessel granted letters of marque that grants them the power and limited protection of a nation to engage in the search, seizure, and destruction of assets or personnel belonging to a foreign party. These warrents, or letters of marque, dictact and limit what actions can be undertaken and who can be targeted. This means unlike the current rash of Somali pirates who attack any and every likely vessel, a privateer can only attack those vessels that fall inside their warrent.

Privateering was all but abolished by the Declaration of Paris, at which time the signatory nations outlawed the issuing of such letters of marque or lettre de course. It ended one of the most powerful non-wartime weapons of the great seafaring nations and what could be an effective weapon against terrorism.

You see, terrorists and pirates have a lot of similarities. Both tend to be supported but not sanctioned by nation-states, so there isn’t much ability for a nation to target another nation on the basis of terrorism or piracy. If the actions were sanctioned by a nation, then the actions would be an act of war.

The signatories of the Declaration of Paris have no recourse against either terrorists or pirates except through their military or police structure. They can not warrent a private organisation to inflict damage on their non-state enemy.

But in todays disjointed and chaotic battlefield, the non-state entity is the most common opponant to the modern military. We are not fighting nations, but well funded multinational quasi state organizations geared toward ideology (in the case of terrorists) or profit (in the case of pirates).

What modern superstates need is the ability to focus highly trained persons against these threats without the recourse or monetary support of armies and navies. They need privateers.

Imagine how privateers could be used in a multitude of ways to protect superstate interests. Take for a moment our own superstate, the USA. We currently have threats to our nation in a wide array of areas, far more than just those off the coast of Somalia. Drug running, human smuggling, and other border incursions have seriously threatened our security and involve high reward senarios for those undertaking them.

If instead of relaying just on our Navy and Coast Guard for the protection of our border along the Gulf of Mexico, we could employ privateers, with specific warrents to intercept boats and planes that are believed to be running drugs to the USA. Safety measures and restrictions could and should be placed inside the letter of marque to ensure that this power isn’t abused by privateers, as long as the profit motive of the privateer is left intact. In fact, the profit motive would be the single biggest savior to human life in the actions of privateers. Sinking a boat or shooting down a plane does not generate profit. Capturing them does.

The same could be used off the coast of Somalia to deter piracy there. Letters of Marque granted to well trained organizations could defend ships from the pirates. While little profit is to be realized by capturing poor peasants in speedboats, these ships often have multimillion dollar cargo. If the warrents of these privateers gave them a fraction of the value of the cargo for each ship they actively help, then there would be privateering profit to be found in those waters.

But the problem returns to the Declaration of Paris. Privateers are outlawed. If only some country hadn’t signed that treaty, a country with a strong sense of right and wrong who could actvely and effectivly regulate privateers.

Oh wait. The USA didn’t sign the treaty. We have not given up the right to issue letters of marque. In fact, Article 1 of our constitution makes it very clear that Congress can issue letters of Marque. In fact, the airship Resolute, a privately owned anti-submarine airship, held letters of marque during World War II.

So if congress had a spine and an ounce of common sense, this is an effective and cheap alternative to making America and her interests safer. But somehow I think the current congress won’t even consider it.

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2 thoughts on “Letters of Marque

  1. I have long thought this to be an apropos antidote for the OBLs of this world, et al.
    As certified experts on the Constitution, our congressmen certainly know of this provision. The probable answers, as to why they have not even mentioned it in their discussion of our current foreign entanglements, are depressing indeed.
    However, “When a country needs poets, poets will arise”. (CT)

    • Well, in a way we HAVE issued “letters of Marque” on OBL. We do have a $50 million bounty on his head. If some enterprising people could figure out how to capture him for less than that, they would do it. The problem is that we’ve not given them the immunity that the Letters would give them.

      I don’t mean to downplay the overwhelming problems that issuing Letters of Marque would bring about. Politically it is quite dangerous, even if we aren’t bound by treaty from doing so. However, I do think that it should be a viable option on the table. If you truly issued an organization letters of Marque AND assured them of the bounty, then organizing a raid after OBL might be possible, even likely.

      But I still think that handling pirates is a much better use of the letters than going after individuals.

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