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New York Times

ELISABETH BUMILLER Published: April 13, 2009

WASHINGTON The hard part was not the distance, 75 feet, an easy range for an experienced sniper. Far more difficult were all the moving parts: the bobbing lifeboat, the rolling ship, hitting three targets simultaneously in darkness and all without harming the hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips.

That was the consensus on Monday from former members of the Navy Seals who said they were impressed by the skills of three Seal snipers who aimed from the fantail of the destroyer Bainbridge and picked off three Somali pirates holding Captain Phillips in a small lifeboat that was being towed about 75 feet behind the destroyer.

For all three of them to fire those shots at the same time and take those guys out, it was quite a feat, said Don Shipley, a former member of the Seals who now runs a private Seal training school in Chesapeake, Va. They showed the patience the sniper has, which is looking through the scope for hours to get that perfect shot.

A Defense official said that the three snipers, who had authority from President Obama to shoot if they thought Captain Phillipss life was in danger, fired when they saw a pirate aiming a rifle at the captains back. There was no command to fire at that given moment, the official said.

Several dozen members of the Seals had secretly boarded the Bainbridge on Saturday, having flown to the area, parachuted into the ocean and then climbed aboard inflatable boats they had dropped into the sea. The Navy would not say where they were based or if they were part of even more elite, clandestine military units that have historically been used for hostage rescues.

But a former member of the Seals said the events unfolded as a classic hostage rescue operation and that Seal snipers trained daily, and under all conditions, to maintain precision skills.

Training from a moving platform is something they do all the time, said the former member, Harry Humphries, who is now a security consultant and actor. Thats a classic problem at sea.

Jamey Cummings, another former member of the Seals who is now an executive headhunter, said most Seal platoons of 16 had at least two snipers who were essential to the tactics of the group. Its a common misperception that Seals like to sneak up on people and use knives on them, he said. If you have to do that, the mission was probably not planned that way.

Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.

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