I just finished listening to the press conference w/ ADM Gortney about the rescue of Captain Phillips. At the time it happened the USS Bainbridge was towing the lifeboat to calmer waters as the sea state was deteriorating. One of the pirates was on board the Bainbridge as the talks about obtaining Phillip's release continued. The lifeboat was approx. 25 m behind the Bainbridge when snipers on the fantail observed one of the pirates in the pilot house of the lifeboat pointing an AK-47 at the back of a tied up Phillips and the other two pirates on board were visible (at least shoulders and heads). The standing authority gave them clearance to engage the pirates if the life of the captain was in imminent danger. The on scene commander deemed this to be true and gave the order to fire. All three bad guys were taken out and then a rigid inflatable boat went to the lifeboat to retrieve Phillips. Iti is unknown at this point whether the shooters were SEALs or Marine Scout Snipers as both would have been available. This was not a rescue attempt ordered by National Command Authority i.e. the President. It was a reaction by the on scene commander under standard authority to safeguard the life of a hostage.
The AP is reporting that President Obama gave the order to use military force to rescue the hostage, that is misleading.
Also, further thoughts on the Rules of Engagement in effect, and some of the questions about them. Including:
The legal standard for the use of deadly force is a legitimate fear for your life or the lives of others. That same standard is infused into all military rules of engagement (ROE) I have seen. The commander of the Bainbridge had the authority to kill the pirates at any time he felt the lives of US citizens were in imminent danger. What President Obama did was to confirm that authority. There is some question as to whether his initial orders restricted the ability of the military to intervene while the negotiations were going on. This comes from the fact that no action was taken when Phillips jumped off the lifeboat and attempted to escape. It is unknown whether there were actually restrictions placed.
Bold mine. I think that's an important question, and one we may never know the answer to; not for a long time, at least. Possibly things happened fast enough that no effort was possible; but it's possible that there was a 'negotiate at (almost)all costs' order that prevented them acting. I mean, considering the watch that must have been going on, how long would it take for a gunner to hose the boat to protect the hostage in the water? Yeah, I know, long-distance quarterbacking, but it is a legitimate question as to the ROE the President ordered.