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House chairmen demand answers on surveillance flight treaty

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 SmithOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs Overnight Energy: Dems unveil first bill toward goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 | Oversight panel asks EPA for plans on 'forever chemicals' | EPA finalizes rule easing chemical plant safety regulations Deal on defense policy bill proves elusive MORE (D-Wash.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelMaloney wins House Oversight gavel Maloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman Overnight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite 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) MenendezSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Graham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden MORE (D-N.J.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenators want Air Force probe into allegations military housing provider faked records Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon watchdog says Syria withdrawal hurt ISIS fight | Vindman testifies on third day of public hearings | Lawmakers to wrap up defense bill talks this week Lawmakers expect to finish defense policy bill negotiations this week MORE (D-R.I.) penned a similar letter to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs Hill, Holmes offer damaging impeachment testimony: Five takeaways Graham requests State Department documents on Bidens, Ukraine MORE and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon denies report that US mulling withdrawal of 4,000 troops from South Korea Pentagon chief: US giving Vietnam surplus ship for coast guard Talks stall on defense costs with South Korea 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 TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates MORE signed a document signaling his intent to withdraw from the treaty at the urging of former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonHill, Holmes offer damaging impeachment testimony: Five takeaways The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Witness dismisses 'fictional' GOP claims of Ukraine meddling Hill says Bolton suggested Giuliani's actions would 'come back to haunt us' 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.”

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