Three Republican chairmen of House committees are calling on President Obama to deny Russia’s request to fly high-tech spy planes over the United States as part of a treaty.
“Given the threat to U.S. national security and Russia’s continued failure to uphold both the spirit and letter of its commitments under the agreement, we urge you to deny this request and explore whether commercially available satellite imagery can better fulfill the goals of this treaty,” Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) wrote in a letter to Obama released Wednesday.
The lawmakers are the chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Armed Services committees, respectively.
Russia and the United States are both signatories of the Open Skies Treaty, which allows participating countries to fly unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of other member countries. The idea is to increase transparency and reduce the risk of miscalculation.
In February, Russia asked the Vienna-based Open Skies Consultative Commission permission to fly surveillance planes equipped with high-powered digital cameras over the United States. A 120-day advanced notification period is now nearing an end.
Russia has specifically requested to upgrade its planes with a “digital electro-optical sensor,” which U.S. officials have expressed concern over for the potential to increase the Kremlin’s spy capabilities and violate the spirit of the treaty.
In their letter, the chairmen wrote that Russia has already violated the spirit of the treaty and that the sensors could make things worse.
“Indeed, Admiral Cecil D. Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, warned in a letter to Congress that ‘the treaty has become a critical component of Russia’s intelligence collection capability directed at the United States,’ ” the lawmakers wrote.
Further, they wrote, a 2015 State Department report found that Russia has not met other obligations of the treaty, such as allowing flights over its entire territory or providing copies of the images it has taken over the United States.
“The treaty is becoming a one-sided agreement that benefits only one signatory,” the lawmakers said.
Rather than allowing the flights, the chairmen suggested the treaty be changed to instead to provide commercial satellite imagery.
“It is important to note that the quality of readily available commercial satellite imagery has dramatically advanced since the treaty was signed,” they wrote.
“Transitioning from reconnaissance flights to commercial satellite imagery may provide the confidence building measures and level of transparency that all signatories, including our allies and partners, envisioned at the outset of the treaty while minimizing Russia’s opportunities for abuse and obstruction.”