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 SmithWhen 'Buy American' and common sense collide Overnight Defense: Marine Corps brushes off criticism of Marines' appearance in GOP convention video | US troops injured in collision with Russian vehicle in Syria | Dems ask for probe of Vindman retaliation allegations Democrats press Pentagon watchdog to probe allegations of retaliation against Vindman brothers MORE (D-Wash.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse panel halts contempt proceedings against Pompeo after documents turned over Engel subpoenas US global media chief Michael Pack The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep 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.”


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) MenendezKasie Hunt to host lead-in show for MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' Senators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report VOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage MORE (D-N.J.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedWhen 'Buy American' and common sense collide Hillicon Valley: Russia 'amplifying' concerns around mail-in voting to undermine election | Facebook and Twitter take steps to limit Trump remarks on voting | Facebook to block political ads ahead of election Top Democrats press Trump to sanction Russian individuals over 2020 election interference efforts MORE (D-R.I.) penned a similar letter to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Sunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Trump steps up Iran fight in final election stretch MORE and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTop admiral: 'No condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Oldest living US World War II veteran turns 111 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 TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE signed a document signaling his intent to withdraw from the treaty at the urging of former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonDiplomacy with China is good for America The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep DOJ launches probe into Bolton book for possible classified information disclosures 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.


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.”