Dems say Trump violating law, introduce new legislation to prevent withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty

By Justin Doubleday / May 21, 2020 at 3:07 PM

Leading Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee criticized President Trump today for his administration's plan to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) and Strategic Forces subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper (D-TN) said the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the treaty "is a slap in the face to our allies in Europe, leaves our deployed forces in the region at risk, and is in blatant violation of the law."

"This decision weakens our national security interests, isolates the United States since the Treaty will continue without us, and abandons a useful tool to hold Russia accountable," they said in a prepared statement.

The lawmakers also said the decision was made "without any consultation with Congress." They pointed to a provision in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requiring a minimum 120-day notification of withdrawal. They also said "multiple communications" from the House Armed Services Committee and other congressional chairmen haven't been answered.

"The Trump Administration continues to give Russia the upper hand with regards to arms control, which leaves our allies and deployed forces less protected in Europe," Smith and Cooper continued. "Despite the Department of Defense's rhetoric about the dire need to prepare for 'great power competition,' this decision will undoubtedly do the exact opposite, and further fracture our relationships with allies needed to push back against Russian aggression in the region."

Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) introduced new legislation today, the Preventing Actions Undermining Security without Endorsement (PAUSE) Act, to require that Congress pass a joint resolution before the administration could withdraw or terminate the treaty.

"Congress can wait no longer to assert our constitutional prerogative," Markey said. "Congress's role over treaty withdrawal has remained uncertain for far too long."

Meanwhile, key Congressional Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK), said they support the withdrawal.

"Russia refused to engage and continued to violate the treaty," Inhofe said in a statement. "Because Putin refuses to change course, I support President Trump's decision to move forward with withdrawal.

"Going forward, it will be critical for the Trump administration to continue working with our allies and partners, especially those in eastern Europe, to ensure they have access to the intelligence they need to protect their security. That includes facilitating access to high-quality imagery," Inhofe continued.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-TX) also said he backs Trump's move.

"Russia has been in clear violation of the treaty for years, denying the United States and our allies overflights of Kaliningrad and the Georgia-Russia border," McCaul said. "More troubling, it is clear that Russia is misusing these flights to gather intelligence on critical U.S. military and civilian infrastructure in an effort to finetune its targeting of our country and threaten our national security."

The Open Skies Treaty entered into force in 2002 and establishes a program of unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the territory of each participating country.

But the Trump administration says Russia is violating the treaty, leading the United States to leave it.

"I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn't adhere to the treaty, and so until they adhere to the treaty, we will pull out," Trump told reporters today, according to a White House pool report. "There's a very good chance we'll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement detailing Russia's alleged violations.

"Russia has refused access to observation flights within a 10-kilometer corridor along its border with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thereby attempting to advance false Russian claims that these occupied territories are independent states," Pompeo said. "Russia's designation of an Open Skies refueling airfield in Crimea, Ukraine, is similarly an attempt to advance its claim of purported annexation of the peninsula, which the United States does not and will never accept."

"Russia has also illegally placed a restriction on flight distance over Kaliningrad, despite the fact that this enclave has become the location of a significant military build-up that Russian officials have suggested includes short-range, nuclear-tipped missiles targeting NATO," Pompeo continued. "In 2019, Russia unjustifiably denied a shared United States and Canada observation flight over a large Russian military exercise."

In a statement released late Thursday, the Defense Department charged that Russia "may" be using the Open Skies flights to develop military targets. 

"The Open Skies Treaty was designed decades ago to increase transparency, cooperation, and mutual understanding," the DOD statement reads. "Instead, Russia has increasingly used the Treaty to support propaganda narratives in an attempt to justify Russian aggression against its neighbors and may use it for military targeting against the United States and our Allies."

U.S. obligations under the treaty will end in six months, according to the DOD statement.