Lawmakers spar over surveillance flight treaty with Russia


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 Trump 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 Keating (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 Sires (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 Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (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 Kinzinger (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.”

Tags Adam Kinzinger Albio Sires Bill Keating Donald Trump Ted Cruz Tom Cotton

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