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 SmithWhite House, Congress near deal to give 12 weeks paid parental leave to all federal workers Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Overnight Defense: Suspect in Pensacola shooting identified as Saudi aviation student | Trump speaks with Saudi king after shooting | Esper denies considering 14K deployment to Mideast MORE (D-Wash.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump House leaders: Trump administration asking South Korea to pay more for US troops 'a needless wedge' Trump administration releases 5M in military aid for Lebanon after months-long delay 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) MenendezForeign Relations Democrat calls on Iran to release other American prisoners GOP senator blocks Armenian genocide resolution The job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' MORE (D-N.J.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedRepublicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases Top Armed Services Democrat scolds military leaders on Trump's intervention in war crimes cases MORE (D-R.I.) penned a similar letter to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Linda Ronstadt tells Pompeo at dinner that he'll 'be loved' when 'he stops enabling Donald Trump' Gaetz defends Ukraine call: Trump acted on 'sincere' concerns of corruption MORE and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperSunday shows — Nadler: A jury would convict Trump in 'three minutes flat' Florida Republican says Pensacola shooting 'has to inform on our ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia' Pentagon chief says he's ordered review of foreign nationals exchange programs after Pensacola shooting 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 TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE signed a document signaling his intent to withdraw from the treaty at the urging of former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Kim Jong Un cannot afford to fail again The shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley 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.”