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 TrumpSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation 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: Doomsday Clock ticks closer to midnight | Military shares details on Kenyan base attack | Amazon asks court to halt work on Pentagon 'war cloud' US military releases new details of Kenyan base attack that left 3 dead Overnight Defense: Dems raise pressure on Esper to block border wall funds | Trump impeachment trial begins in Senate | Day one dominated by fight over rules MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Overnight Defense: Trump downplays troops' concussion injuries in Iran attack | Dems offer case against Trump on day two of trial | UN links Saudis to hack of Bezos' phone Pompeo willing to testify in impeachment trial if 'legally required' 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) MenendezMedia's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle Dem senators say Iran threat to embassies not mentioned in intelligence briefing Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers MORE (D-N.J.), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSix mayors making a difference Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Senate Dems urge Esper to oppose shifting Pentagon money to border wall MORE (D-R.I.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelUS officials, world leaders arrive in Israel for World Holocaust Forum  House Democrats may call new impeachment witnesses if Senate doesn't Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithBroad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall MORE (D-Wash.).

Asked what prompted the letter, a spokeswoman for the House Armed Services Committee highlighted former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonSenate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses Hakeem Jeffries tells Senate in impeachment proceedings they should subpoena Baseball Hall of Fame after Jeter vote Susan Collins asked Justice Roberts to intervene after Nadler late-night 'cover-up' accusation 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 PutinThe need for clear thinking about Russia German president expresses 'sorrow' for Holocaust, warns 'spirits of evil' are rising A new era in Russia will allow America to rethink its policy MORE has violated the Open Skies Treaty for years while continuing to benefit from surveillance flights over the United States,” Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonGOP senator provides fidget spinners to Senate colleagues at lunch Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Senators opt to drink milk on Senate floor during impeachment trial 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 BidenSchiff pleads to Senate GOP: 'Right matters. And the truth matters.' Anita Hill to Iowa crowd: 'Statute of limitations' for Biden apology is 'up' Sen. Van Hollen releases documents from GAO investigation 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.