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US lawmakers considered making it legal to pirate assets of Russian citizens

One member of the House of Representatives, has no trouble at all thinking of what to do to Russia: Make Privateering Great Again.
russian assets

Russian money (Credit: Dinara Abdrakhimova / Getty Images)

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, American lawmakers and foreign policy wonks were unsure how the United States should ultimately respond. One member of the House of Representatives, however, had no trouble at all thinking of what to do: he decided to Make Privateering Great Again.

For readers who need to brush up on their history lessons, privateering is essentially legalized piracy, allowing individuals to capture enemy ships and cargo with the blessing and protection of a government. It basically allows for people to become temporary belligerents in a war.

Texas Congressman Lance Gooden wanted to revive the practice that pretty much disappeared around the mid-19th century. In 2022, he introduced legislation in the House that would allow the U.S. government to once again issue the paperwork necessary to seize Russian vessels on the high seas.

Piracy, as we all know, is both illegal and immoral. Attacking ships at sea to steal cargo, kidnap crew members, take the ship in its entirety can land offenders a life sentence in the United States. Historically, the penalty for piracy was death, usually by hanging. During a time of war, however, belligerent states would issue letters of marque and reprisal to ships and their captains, giving them carte blanche to engage in piracy under the flag of that nation.

With a letter of marque in hand, yesterday’s pirate becomes today’s privateer. The newly-minted privateer was allowed to capture foreign ships as a prize, selling the ship and its cargo, then splitting the proceeds among the crew, ship owners, officers and the state that issued their letter of marque.

Sir Francis Drake was an avid privateer for England during his life. He was so good at it, the Spanish labeled him a pirate. The famous Scottish captain William Kidd grew a reputation for hunting pirates but was a privateer for the English Crown. Dutch captain Jean Bart was a storied naval commander, but even he would be a privateer for France and Spain.

The common thread between these legendary privateers and other, less well-known privateers is that they were all active during the Age of Sail, before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern states. Privateering fell out of fashion with the Paris Declaration of 1856, in which much of Europe agreed to outlaw the practice. The United States never signed this agreement and has since had the right to issue letters of marque and reprisal.

On February 28, 2022, Gooden introduced House Resolution 6869, “To authorize the President of the United States to issue letters of marque and reprisal for the purpose of seizing the assets of certain Russian citizens, and for other purposes.” Gooden wanted to allow American citizens to capture the property of Russian oligarchs, including jets, yachts, homes, and other private possessions, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

His bill would have required President Biden to issue letters of marque. In the age of cyberspace, it might have been devastating to Russia’s elite oligarchs. Imagine the bulk of Russian wealth suddenly being stolen by American hackers with their letters of marque. The U.S. has not issued such a letter since the War of 1812, although another Texas Congressman, Ron Paul, tried to issue letters in 2001 and 2009, against al-Qaeda and Somali pirates, respectively.

The problem with issuing letters of marque is that it’s an act of war, which would have seriously raised the tensions between the U.S. and Russia at a time when no one knew Ukraine would give Russia the beating it has since delivered.