Top Democrats warn against withdrawing from treaty that allows observation flights over Russia

Top Democrats warn against withdrawing from treaty that allows observation flights over Russia
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Four top defense and foreign policy Democrats in the House and Senate are raising the alarm about the possibility of President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE withdrawing from a multilateral treaty they argue is a "critical element" of U.S. and European security.

At issue is the Open Skies Treaty, which allows the pact’s 34 signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of other signatories.

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“We understand the administration is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty and urge you not to do so. Withdrawing from the Treaty would be contrary to U.S. national security, and is apparently moving forward without any notice or consultation with Congress,” the lawmakers wrote Tuesday in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers Official: Pentagon has started 'prudent planning' for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May US issues Iran sanctions to enforce UN action ignored by international community MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers Overnight Defense: House Democrats unveil stopgap spending measure to GOP opposition | Bill includes .6B for new subs | Trump issues Iran sanctions after world shrugs at US action at UN Navalny calls on Russia to return clothes he was wearing when he fell ill MORE. “We understand agencies have been directed not even to discuss this matter with Congress.”

The letter was signed by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezKasie Hunt to host lead-in show for MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report VOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage MORE (D-N.J.), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedWhen 'Buy American' and common sense collide Hillicon Valley: Russia 'amplifying' concerns around mail-in voting to undermine election | Facebook and Twitter take steps to limit Trump remarks on voting | Facebook to block political ads ahead of election Top Democrats press Trump to sanction Russian individuals over 2020 election interference efforts MORE (D-R.I.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse panel halts contempt proceedings against Pompeo after documents turned over Engel subpoenas US global media chief Michael Pack The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithWhen 'Buy American' and common sense collide Overnight Defense: Marine Corps brushes off criticism of Marines' appearance in GOP convention video | US troops injured in collision with Russian vehicle in Syria | Dems ask for probe of Vindman retaliation allegations Democrats press Pentagon watchdog to probe allegations of retaliation against Vindman brothers MORE (D-Wash.).

Asked what prompted the letter, a spokeswoman for the House Armed Services Committee highlighted former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonHillicon Valley: FBI, DHS warn that foreign hackers will likely spread disinformation around election results | Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day | Trump to meet with Republican state officials on tech liability shield Government watchdog recommends creation of White House cyber director position Diplomacy with China is good for America MORE's opposition to arms control agreements. Pressed on if anything has happened since Bolton's ouster last month, the spokeswoman did not immediately reply.

Engel also sent his own letter Monday to national security adviser Robert O’Brien warning against an Open Skies withdrawal, citing unspecified “reports” that the administration is considering the move.

"We do not comment on Congressional correspondence. We continue to implement the treaty and are in full compliance with our obligations under this Treaty, unlike Russia," a State Department spokesperson told CNN.

Republicans for years have accused Russia of violating the treaty by blocking flights over some of its territory.

Russian President “Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinEx-Trump national security adviser says US leaders 'making it easy for Putin' to meddle The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Putin calls on UN to strengthen World Health Organization MORE has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years while continuing to benefit from surveillance flights over the United States,” Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonGOP brushes back charges of hypocrisy in Supreme Court fight Trump uses bin Laden raid to attack Biden Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE (R-Ark.) said in a statement Tuesday. “The president should withdraw from the treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on Open Skies flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power."

But Democrats argue the treaty provides an invaluable tool to monitor Russian military capabilities.

The United States has also used the flights in recent years to show support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. In 2018, after Russia seized two Ukrainian naval ships transiting the Kerch Strait, the United States conducted an Open Skies flight over Ukraine to “reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine.” The U.S. military also conducted an Open Skies flight over Ukraine in 2014 in response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Some Republicans, too, continue to support the treaty. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said in a statement Tuesday that “we get valuable access to Russian airspace and military airfields on short notice” and that he has “yet to see a compelling reason to withdraw from Open Skies.”

U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal, also Tuesday morning retweeted Bacon’s support for the treaty as something that “helps build confidence & increase transparency.”

In their letter, Menendez, Reed, Engel and Smith argued that withdrawing from Open Skies “would be yet another gift from the Trump administration to Putin.”

“Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty would be perceived as casting further doubt on the status of the United States commitment to Ukraine’s security and would advance the Russian narrative that the United States is an unreliable partner in the region,” the lawmakers wrote, in an apparent reference to the House impeachment inquiry into whether Trump leveraged U.S. aid to Ukraine to pressure its leaders to investigate political rival former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate Trump attacks Omar for criticizing US: 'How did you do where you came from?' MORE.

The lawmakers also highlighted that this year’s House-passed version of the annual defense policy bill would prohibit funding to withdraw from Open Skies unless all other signatories agree Russia is in material breach.

The letter also slammed the administration for not consulting with Congress or U.S. allies about the issue. 

“If the president withdraws from this landmark treaty, it will fundamentally demean and devalue the United States commitment to treaties and other international obligations,” they wrote. “We request that you not move forward with any action to withdraw or impair the United States as a party to the treaty absent, at minimum, meaningful consultation with Congress.”

Updated on Oct. 9 at 8:20 a.m.