The House Committee on Foreign Affairs is considering a bill that would authorize President Biden to issue “Letters of Marque and Reprisal.” If you have never heard of Letters of Marque and Reprisal, you are not alone.
Letters of Marque allow civilians to become privateers. There is a subtle, but important, distinction between pirates and privateers. A pirate is a criminal who attacks ships and robs them of their cargo. Letters of Marque immunize privateers against charges of piracy. Privateers may seize ships and other property owned by citizens of foreign countries. Afterwards, legal title to the seized assets may be transferred to the privateer as a reward for their assistance.
If passed, the bill would authorize American civilians to seize boats, planes, and other assets owned by Russian citizens who the Treasury Department determines are subject to sanctions.
The 1856 Paris Declaration, which was signed by over 20 countries including Russia, banned privateering between the treaty parties. At the time, the United States was concerned about its comparatively small navy and refused to sign. The power to issue Letters of Marque remains one of the enumerated powers of Congress under Article 1 of the Constitution. However, Congress has not issued a Letter of Marque since the War of 1812.
A few things to note before you set sail: A privateer must post a bond to ensure compliance with the law. And Congress has not yet worked out the framework for transferring ownership of the seized assets to the privateer.
While privateering may be impractical, if you are interested in helping Ukraine, the Red Cross is an excellent resource.