House chairmen demand explanation on Trump's 'illegal' withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty

The chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees are demanding an explanation from the State and Defense departments on what they are calling President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE’s “illegal” move to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.

A provision in the annual defense policy bill signed into law in December requires the administration to notify Congress at least 120 days before it officially submits an intent to withdraw to the other treaty members.

Democrats say the required notice was not given to Congress before Trump announced Thursday he was pulling the U.S. out of the treaty.

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“From the start, this process has been flawed and dismissed congressional oversight,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelNYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency Cynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney Democrats call on Blinken to set new sexual misconduct policies at State Department MORE (D-N.Y.) and Armed Services Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithAngst grips America's most liberal city China is rapidly expanding its nuclear force: Should the US be concerned? House panel wants probe of F-35 breathing issues MORE (D-Wash.) wrote in a letter Friday to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief defends Milley after Trump book criticism | Addresses critical race theory | Top general says Taliban has 'strategic momentum' in war The Biden administration and Tunisia: Off to a good start Overnight Defense: Navy pulls plug on 0 million railgun effort | Esper defends Milley after Trump attacks | Navy vet charged in Jan. 6 riot wants trial moved MORE.

“Exercising Congress’s constitutional duty, we are writing to demand an explanation for this intended illegal action and insist that the administration comply with Section 1234,” the chairmen added, referring to the section of the National Defense Authorization Act that required the notification to Congress.

Asked for comment on the letter, Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said that "as with all congressional correspondence, we will respond directly to the authors of the letter.” A State Department spokesperson similarly said that "as a general matter, we do not comment on correspondence with Congress."

Under the Open Skies Treaty, the more than 30 signatories, including the United States and Russia, can fly unarmed observation flights over each other. Its intention is to provide transparency about military activities to avoid miscalculations that could lead to war.

After Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal, Pompeo said the administration would submit its formal notice of intent Friday to the other treaty members.

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Under the process laid out in the treaty, a formal notice of intent kicks off a six-month period before the withdrawal is final.

In announcing the withdrawal, the Trump administration cited Russian violations, including Moscow restricting flights over Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

Administration officials also pointed to Russian behavior they said did not violate the treaty but “undermined” its intent. Particularly, officials allege Russia is using imagery from the flights to target critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe, but would not provide an example.

In their letter, Engel and Smith recognized concerns about Russian flight restrictions, but argued those concerns “do not overshadow the value of the treaty to America’s national security” and can be addressed within the treaty’s implementing body.

Engel and Smith have written several previous letters to the administration on Open Skies, but said they have gotten no response. In the Friday letter, the pair railed against what they described as “egregious stonewalling” from the administration.

“We offered on several occasions to work closely with you and others in the Administration on the future of the Open Skies Treaty and other critical national security issues. Yet these overtures were ignored and now you are flouting legal requirements to consult and notify Congress,” they wrote. “It appears that short-sighted interests and partisan politics prevailed over reason and good foreign policy. This is a regrettable decision that will have lasting consequences.”

--Updated at 1:43 p.m.