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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 John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' 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 EngelOvernight Defense: Trump, Biden set to meet in final debate | Explicit Fort Bragg tweets were sent by account administrator | China threatens retaliation over Taiwan arms sale Is Trump a better choice for Jewish voters than Biden? Overnight Defense: Trump says he's leaving Walter Reed, 'feeling really good' after COVID-19 treatment | White House coronavirus outbreak grows | Dems expand probe into Pompeo speeches MORE (D-N.Y.) and Armed Services Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithA long overdue discussion on Pentagon spending Overnight Defense: Armed Services chairman unsold on slashing defense budget | Democratic Senate report details 'damage, chaos' of Trump foreign policy | Administration approves .8B Taiwan arms sales Democratic House chairman trusts Pentagon won't follow 'unlawful orders' on election involvement MORE (D-Wash.) wrote in a letter Friday to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoArmenia and Azerbaijan say they will implement ceasefire agreement Monday Entire Nigerian police force mobilized after days of violent protests that have killed at least 69 Hillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' MORE and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Overnight Defense: Biden nets military family endorsements | Final debate features North Korea exchange | Judge refuses to dismiss sexual assault case against top general Israel signals it won't oppose F-35 sale to UAE 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.