Rep. Lance Gooden, a Republican who represents Texas’ 5th District, has introduced legislation that would allow U.S. citizens to seize the yachts, jets, and other property belonging to Russian oligarchs who have been sanctioned in response to the invasion of Ukraine. In other words, privateering.
Privateering is essentially legal piracy. In the age of sail, it was common for nations to issue letters of marque licensing private citizens to raid the shipping of enemy nations. The practice died down in the 19th Century with the Paris Declaration of 1856 outlawing privateers. However, the United States never signed the Paris Declaration, and Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to issue letters of marque.
Gooden’s bill would require President Biden to issue letters of marque to seize yachts and other assets belonging to sanctioned Russian citizens. Gooden’s office even says that letters of marque could be issued to hackers to go after Russia in cyberspace. “Putin’s inner circle have planes and yachts sitting at airports and harbors all over the world,” Gooden said in a statement. “If President Biden refuses to act quickly, then it is time Congress and American citizens take matters into their own hands.”
Biden said that the United States and its European allies will go after the yachts, planes, and luxury apartments of Russian oligarchs in his State of the Union address. On Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced the creation of a special unit called Task Force KleptoCapture dedicated to this purpose. Indeed, Russian superyachts are currently fleeing to the Indian Ocean to escape seizure and German authorities have already seized a $600 million yacht belonging to Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov.
Yet Gooden’s proposed legislation would go a step further by allowing private citizens to conduct seizures. The bill is currently sparse on details and one could say it reads more like what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. In an interview with the Washington Post, Gooden admitted that some legal questions were yet to be answered, such as how privateers would be compensated and whether they would be allowed to keep the assets they seized (would privateers take what they can and give nothing back?).
While the United States has not used privateers since the War of 1812, issuing letters of marque has been proposed several times in recent years. Former Texas congressman Ron Paul introduced the September 11 Marque and Reprisal Act of 2001, which would allow private citizens to seize the Al-Qaeda terrorists and their property. In 2009, Paul again proposed issuing letters of marque, this time to deal with Somali pirates.
The issue of modern-day privateering was explored in “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War,” which depicts a hypothetical conflict where the United States faces off against Russia and China. In the book, an eccentric billionaire receives a letter of marque from the U.S. government to hijack a Chinese space station. “Ghost Fleet” has already had one of its plot points come to pass in real life; the novel depicts Anonymous conducting cyber attacks against Russian and Chinese forces and after the Ukraine invasion the hacktivist group declared a cyber war against Russia.
But before you go sailing the high seas and Twitter in search of Russian booty, you should know there are serious drawbacks that will most likely prevent Gooden’s plan from becoming reality. P.W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of “Ghost Fleet,” expressed reservations about the idea.
“Privateers in history are for when you don’t have enough forces,” Singer told the Signal via email. “Today, the U.S. Navy has no problem finding or seizing these yachts if it so wanted.” Indeed, privateers seem even more unnecessary when the navies and coast guards of the various allied countries that have joined the United States in sanctioning Russia.
Furthermore, privateers are typically reserved for war, and setting them loose on Russian oligarchs could spark a broader conflict between the United States and Russia. “While Ukraine is at war with Russia, we are not. And for good reason, as that would mean we are in World War III,” said Singer. “So U.S. citizens going out armed and attacking Russian citizens around the world is a pathway to having that scenario happen.” In “Ghost Fleet,” World War III had already started when the United States authorized space privateering. Thankfully, we’re not there yet as that flag means death.
There are also risks to using privateers in cyberspace. “If such a cyber free-for-all were to happen, with U.S. citizens hacking everything from Russian banks to Russian businesses, there would also be massive retaliation against U.S. targets,” said Singer.
So Gooden’s proposal may be the worst idea to enforce sanctions you’ve ever heard of, but you have heard of it.