House chairmen demand answers on surveillance flight treaty

House chairmen demand answers on surveillance flight treaty
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A pair of top House Democrats is demanding answers on the administration’s reported plans to withdraw from a multilateral treaty proponents argue is integral to keeping watch on Russia.

In a letter released Friday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithLawmakers 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 House Armed Services chairman exploring options to stop Trump from taking .2B in DOD funds for wall MORE (D-Wash.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse 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 House panel reinvites Pompeo to deliver Iran testimony MORE (D-N.Y.) accused the administration of “stonewalling” on providing answers on the fate of the Open Skies Treaty.

“Congress has a constitutional duty to provide rigorous oversight of the executive branch’s operations, and the administration should not seek to hide information from Congress or otherwise prevent us from performing appropriate oversight,” Smith and Engel wrote to national security adviser Robert O’Brien. “This stonewalling only serves to undermine collaboration between the executive and legislative branches of our government on matters of national security.”

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Engel previously wrote a letter to O’Brien in October warning against withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. A day later, Engel, Smith, 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.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight 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 Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change MORE (D-R.I.) penned a similar letter to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoCountries reach agreement in Berlin on Libya cease-fire push, arms embargo Trump Jr.: If 'weaker' Republicans only call for certain witnesses, 'they don't deserve to be in office' House Democrats may call new impeachment witnesses if Senate doesn't MORE and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown 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.

The 2002 treaty allows the pact’s 34 signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of other signatories. The intention is to increase transparency and reduce the risk of military miscalculation.

The Wall Street Journal has reported President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE signed a document signaling his intent to withdraw from the treaty at the urging of former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonDemocrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' Romney pledges 'open mind' ahead of impeachment trial McConnell proposes compressed schedule for impeachment trial MORE before he left the administration.

Republicans for years have accused Russia of violating the treaty by blocking flights over some of its territory, including Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Democrats, meanwhile, argue Russia’s actions, while concerning, do not constitute a material breach of the treaty and that they should be addressed while the United States remains in the agreement. They have also argued the pact provides an invaluable tool to monitor Russian military capabilities and signal resolve to U.S. allies, such as flights over Ukraine following Russia’s seizure of naval ship in 2018 and invasion of Crimea in 2014.

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At his confirmation hearing to become U.S. ambassador to Russia, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said he’s been assured the United States has not withdrawn from the treaty. He also said a withdrawal would require “substantial evidence” supporting the national security case for leaving and pledged to consult with Congress and U.S. allies before any withdrawal.

In their letter, Smith and Engel highlighted Sullivan’s comments and said they have yet to receive any analysis supporting a withdrawal.

“We are specifically disturbed by reports indicating that both the State Department and the Department of Defense have been ordered by the White House not to discuss the Open Skies Treaty with Congress,” they wrote. “We are also concerned that the White House may have used biased analysis as it pertains to potential treaty withdrawal, failing to ensure an objective process and neglecting to properly coordinate with the departments and agencies responsible for the treaty’s implementation.”

The chairman asked for written responses, followed by a briefing, no later than Dec. 13 on an analysis of Open Skies flights conducted by the United States and allies in 2018 and 2019; details on efforts to mitigate risks U.S. assets from information collected during flights; and communications from NATO allies and partners on their views of a potential U.S. withdrawal.

“It is our hope that we can work together to advance our national security interests,” they wrote. “We request your personal engagement on this to ensure that the United States does not unwisely and rashly withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which continues to serve U.S., allied and partner national security interests.”