The chairmen of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees on Friday issued a striking rebuke of President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from a landmark international treaty that allows U.S. intelligence flights over Russia.
Mr. Trump on Thursday announced the administration is preparing to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, a nearly 20-year-old international agreement that allows dozens of nations to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over each other’s territory, but critics say the agreement isn’t being enforced and is no longer in the U.S. national interest.
“The Open Skies Treaty has played a critical role in advancing transatlantic security by providing transparency and concrete, shareable, unclassified intelligence and is an important demonstration of the United States’ commitment to security in Europe and to collectively hold Russia accountable,” Reps. Adam Smith, Washington State Democrat, and Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, argued in a letter to Mr. Trump.
Supporters of the treaty have long said that European partners could be aggravated by another U.S. repudiation of a major multilateral security pact. All but two of the European Union’s 29 member countries have joined the agreement, and when the U.S. conducts intelligence flights, European allies are often brought along.
“This is especially true in the context of Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine,” the chairmen wrote. “In our conversations with our NATO allies and partners on both sides of the Atlantic, it is clear that they strongly supported the United States continued participation in the OST — and have warned of what our withdrawal would mean for our mutual security and for strategic stability across the transatlantic space.”
Critics of the treaty, meanwhile, have complained about restrictions Moscow has put on overflights of certain areas, including Chechnya and Russia’s strategic Kaliningrad exclave in Europe.
The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies also have warned that Moscow is using Open Skies flights over the U.S. and Europe to map out targets and infrastructure that could be hit by a conventional or cyberattack.
The chairmen acknowledged such concerns, but said they “do not overshadow the value of the Treaty to America’s national security.”
“The United States and its allies and partners have flown three times as many surveillance flights over Russian territory than the Russians have flown over U.S. territory since Open Skies entered into force, providing the United States and its allies with significantly more tangible intelligence,” Mr. Smith and Mr. Engel said.
The American pullout would take effect six months from now, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration reserves the right to “reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance” with the accord.
Since Mr. Trump’s announcement, scores of Democratic lawmakers and former intelligence officials have pushed for the U.S.’ ongoing participation in the pact and hit back at the administration for failing to notify Congress before Mr. Trump announced the decision.
“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,” the chairmen 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,” they wrote.
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