Special Agent Mark D. Clookie, Director, U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)
hile maritime piracy has existed for hundreds of years, the current criminal situation off the coast of Somalia has escalated dramatically. In 2010, pirates attacked more than 200 commercial and private vessels and obtained an estimated $240 million in ransom payments from hijackings. In February, pirates shot and killed four American hostages. These startling facts highlight the need for an aggressive military and law enforcement response to deter and prosecute acts of violence on the high seas.
U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) special agents have served as a law enforcement presence aboard U.S. Navy vessels for decades; however, the idea of sending NCIS agents to support the interdiction and investigation of international crimes, such as piracy, is a new concept. Following a request for support from the U.S. Navy in 2008, NCIS developed the Counterpiracy Investigations and Operations Program to provide law enforcement expertise in support of naval forces on the front lines of counterpiracy efforts.
NCIS special agents have assisted in dozens of suspect vessel interdictions. They have interrogated detained piracy suspects for prosecution in Kenyan courts as well as in U.S. federal court. NCIS special agents have also processed a number of piracy incident crime scenes and provided a significant amount of high-value intelligence to both police and military officials regarding piracy personnel, activities, techniques, and tactics. This specialized support to maritime law enforcement remains one of the few ways in which criminal investigators are actively working aboard deployed military vessels assigned to counterpiracy operations.
NCIS support to counterpiracy is not limited to the maritime domain; NCIS special agents and intelligence analysts have worked closely with counterparts at the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain and within the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C., to share essential intelligence information obtained by NCIS agents. Moreover, NCIS personnel around the world have provided information and expertise to U.S. and foreign law enforcement counterparts in support of criminal investigations and operations targeting land-based piracy networks. One of the most successful efforts is the Released Vessel Debrief Program, in which NCIS special agents debrief crew members at their next port of call once a hostage vessel is released from pirate control. Although not all vessels have been made available by their owners or flag countries, NCIS has conducted debriefs of crews from 33 different pirated vessels since 2008.
For centuries, piracy was treated as a matter for naval forces to handle, often with force or with summary execution. The modern world, however, calls for modern ways of investigating the crime of maritime piracy. NCIS special agents investigating piracy incidents realized traditional investigation methods required some adapting for maritime deployment. New techniques were developed for processing piracy crime scenes, from the largest commercial vessels docked in port to the confined spaces of a lifeboat being towed by a naval vessel. Tactical techniques and methods were revised for operating safely in skiffs, small boats, and commercial vessels, some of which still contained hostile parties.
Additionally, NCIS special agents developed expertise in applying forensic capabilities to maritime piracy investigations. Just as a burglary crime scene has certain trademarks that differ from those of a death scene, piracy-related crime scenes have particular characteristics and evidence that must be documented to help ensure successful investigation and prosecution. Biometrics collection capabilities also have been used in the investigation of piracy operations and organizations. NCIS personnel have collected biometric information, either by manual means (e.g., fingerprint cards and DNA swabs) or with digital biometric devices. Data are then added to the Department of Defense Automated Biometric Identification System and searched against the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. After every crime scene investigation, NCIS special agents, forensic experts, and support staff examine the lessons learned to further develop expertise in processing piracy-related crime scenes.
Before even starting an investigation, most law enforcement personnel know which legal authority will have jurisdiction, and they will keep in mind the relevant statutes and procedures as they prepare their case. Piracy investigations, however, often face a far different reality, one in which the country receiving the suspects may not be identified at the onset of the investigation. Agents often process crime scenes, interview witnesses, and interrogate suspected pirates without the prosecutorial venue having been identified. With such uncertainty, it has become vital to develop a standard set of investigative procedures to ensure that any case can be prosecuted in almost any country in the world.
NCIS regularly partners with law enforcement agencies throughout the world and has provided criminal intelligence; investigative best practices; and, in some cases, investigative support to numerous counterpart agencies. NCIS also has increased its information sharing related to piracy with EUROPOL and INTERPOL. NCIS has actively worked to provide training, guidance, and information to assist international military and law enforcement partners in their counterpiracy efforts. To further this goal, NCIS helped create The Guide for Investigating Acts of Maritime Piracy, a compilation of the collective expertise developed by special agents and numerous counterpart law enforcement organizations engaged in counterpiracy investigations. This document is intended only for law enforcement audiences, and copies can be obtained by writing to NCIS or by requesting a copy at the NCIS exhibit booth during the annual IACP conference. From outlining the laws of piracy and establishing operational guidelines to highlighting piracy-specific forensic techniques, this handbook is a comprehensive resource for all law enforcement organizations engaged in counterpiracy investigations.
This year, at the 118th Annual IACP Conference in Chicago, NCIS will host a workshop on investigating and prosecuting acts of maritime piracy. The workshop will provide a forum for sharing information and discussing best practices in order to improve law enforcement’s ability to effectively respond to, investigate, and counter piracy.
For copies of The Guide, please contact NCIS at firstname.lastname@example.org. ■
Please cite as:
Mark D. Clookie, "NCIS Uses New Techniques to Fight an Old Crime," From the Director, The Police Chief 78 (September 2011): 14.