Lawmakers spar over surveillance flight treaty with Russia

Lawmakers spar over surveillance flight treaty with Russia
© Getty

Lawmakers on Tuesday debated the effectiveness of the Open Skies Treaty at a joint hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.

The hearing comes amid reports that President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE is considering withdrawing from the treaty, which allows for unarmed surveillance flights over the territories of its 34 signatories. Russia, a signatory to the treaty, has restricted U.S. access under the treaty to its Kaliningrad region and its border with the South Ossetia region of Georgia. 

Democrats have argued the U.S. should remain in the treaty, and Rep. Bill KeatingWilliam (Bill) Richard KeatingOvernight Defense: Trump, Biden set to meet in final debate | Explicit Fort Bragg tweets were sent by account administrator | China threatens retaliation over Taiwan arms sale Overnight Defense: National Guard chief negative in third coronavirus test | Pentagon IG probing Navy's coronavirus response | Democrats blast use of Russia deterrence funds on border wall Democrats blast 'blatant misuse' of Russia deterrence funding on border wall MORE (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, urged the administration to consult Congress before making any decision.


“Any decision to withdraw from this treaty should involve extensive consultations with Congress and our allies before our national security is put at risk,” Keating said.

But there were also divides among Democrats.

Rep. Albio SiresAlbio B. SiresCountering China's influence in the Caribbean with a second Caribbean Basin Initiative We can't lose sight of Ortega's abuses in Nicaragua Hispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs MORE (D-N.J.) questioned the treaty’s usefulness thanks to improvements in satellite technology since its implementation in 2002.

“We have satellites that can take a picture of a baseball from ... 200 miles or whatever it is. It doesn’t seem to me that these flights are as good,” Sires said.

“I’m not convinced that this Open Skies Treaty is effective anymore,” Sires continued.


Republicans have expressed criticism of the treaty and called for Trump to withdraw.

Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration MORE (R-Texas) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonGOP chairman: Defense bill to include renaming Confederate bases, but not Section 230 repeal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread Potential 2024 Republicans flock to Georgia amid Senate runoffs MORE (R-Ark.) introduced a resolution in October demanding the U.S. exit the treaty. Their resolution argued that the United States does not get new information from the surveillance flights.

“The United States Government has developed and deployed technology so that it does not gain significant additional intelligence from participating in the Open Skies Treaty,” the resolution, which has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said.

Amy Woolf, a specialist in nuclear weapons policy with the Congressional Research Service, testified before the hearing that data from satellites can't replace date from plane flights.

Woolf said one key feature of the data from planes is that it is readily shared with NATO allies. Data from classified surveillance satellites is not often made public.


“Satellites do not replicate data from planes and planes do not replicate data from satellites. They provide different types of data,” she told lawmakers.

The Wall Street Journal reported in October that Trump has signed a document signaling his intention to withdraw from the treaty, citing multiple U.S. officials. 

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, Trump's nominee to be the next ambassador to Russia, told lawmakers in October that the U.S. has not withdrawn from the treaty.

Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerDespite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill GOP urges Trump not to tank defense bill over tech fight First release from Fox News Books reaches No. 2 on Amazon top-seller list MORE (R-Ill.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, said Trump is right to reevaluate how effectiveness of the treaty, which he said had been undermined by Russian infractions.

“I believe it is important to strengthen international agreements as they build goodwill between adversaries and make the world a safer place,” Kinzinger said. “But in order for them to work, everyone has to play by the same rules and Russia is not.”