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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 TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee 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 EsperCORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report Female generals' promotions held back over fears of Trump's response: report Overnight Defense: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help Trump to reemerge on political scene at CPAC China labels human rights criticism 'groundless' 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) MenendezSenate confirms Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador The Memo: Biden bets big on immigration Biden pushes expanded pathways to citizenship as immigration bill lands in Congress MORE (D-N.J.), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedCORRECTED: Overnight Defense: COVID-19 stymies effort to study sexual assault at military academies | Biden, Saudi king speak ahead of Khashoggi report Overnight Defense: New Senate Armed Services chairman talks Pentagon policy nominee, Afghanistan, more | Biden reads report on Khashoggi killing | Austin stresses vaccine safety in new video Senate Armed Services chair expects 'some extension' of troops in Afghanistan MORE (D-R.I.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelProgressives target Manchin, Sinema with new PAC State Department sets up new bureau for cybersecurity and emerging technologies How Congress dismissed women's empowerment MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided House on full display Nearly 5,000 National Guard troops to stay in DC over concerns of potential violence in March Langevin hopeful new Armed Services panel will shine new spotlight on cybersecurity MORE (D-Wash.).

Asked what prompted the letter, a spokeswoman for the House Armed Services Committee highlighted former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump offered North Korea's Kim a ride home on Air Force One: report Key impeachment figure Pence sticks to sidelines Bolton lawyer: Trump impeachment trial is constitutional 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 PutinHow to rethink Russia sanctions Tucker Carlson bashes CNN, claims it's 'more destructive' than QAnon Biden CIA pick pledges to confront China if confirmed, speak 'truth to power' MORE has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years while continuing to benefit from surveillance flights over the United States,” Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonTrump to reemerge on political scene at CPAC Romney-Cotton, a Cancun cabbie and the minimum wage debate On The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears 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 BidenBiden 'disappointed' in Senate parliamentarian ruling but 'respects' decision Taylor Swift celebrates House passage of Equality Act Donald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' 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.