WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to pull out of an international treaty designed to bring more transparency to military activities set off an uproar on Thursday, including claims the abrupt move may violate the law.
The Open Skies Treaty, which was first proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower and signed by President George H.W. Bush, permits reciprocal flights over military facilities and has long been considered a stabilizing force, especially for nations that lack spy satellites or other high-tech means to monitor military facilities.
The treaty has been signed by more than 30 nations, including Russia, and went into effect in 2002. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S. on Friday will notify the various parties that it’s withdrawing, which will take effect in six months.
“The Administration’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies 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,” said Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “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.”
“What’s more, this decision has been made without any consultation with Congress,” Smith added, pointing out that the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requires a minimum of 120 days’ notice of withdrawal.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel also accused Trump of “knowingly breaking the law.”
“President Trump and his appointees have again shown disdain for arms control, lack of respect for Congress and its Constitutional authority, and disregard for the rule of law,” said Engel in a statement.
The decision was also seen by other lawmakers as a betrayal of U.S. allies who depend on the treaty and fueled new fears Trump could also let the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia expire early next year.
“The dangerous and misguided decision to abandon this international agreement cripples our ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia, while allowing Russian reconnaissance flights over U.S. bases in Europe to continue,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.
“The administration’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty — and the uncertainty surrounding its commitment to New START — is very alarming. It betrays the transatlantic alliance,” she added.
The Trump administration, however, has maintained that Russia has violated Open Skies and that it no longer serves its purpose.
Critics of the pact also insist that widely available commercial satellite imagery can now be used to collect the same intelligence data as the flights permitted by Open Skies.
Trump’s decision to inform Moscow on Friday of the withdrawal decision was first reported by The New York Times. It would add to a growing list of treaties the president has walked away from, including the nuclear deal with Iran, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and the Paris climate agreement.
Trump expanded on his plans on Thursday, telling reporters at the White House that “Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty, so until they adhere, we will pull out.”
For some hawks, the move is long overdue. Senator Tom Cotton, a Trump ally, lauded the development, calling withdrawal from the treaty “another positive step to end America’s dependence on dysfunctional and broken treaties.”
“The Open Skies Treaty started life as a good-faith agreement between major powers and died an asset of Russian intelligence,” he added in a statement.
The Associated Press reported that U.S. allies have already been informed of the impending move.
“They asked us not to leave,” said Alexandra Bell, a former State Department official who is now senior policy director for the Council for a Livable World. “The problems of the treaty are minor. They were fixable.”
Others warned Trump is doing more damage to alliances for no gain.
“A unilateral U.S. exit from Open Skies would undermine our security and that of our European allies, all of whom strongly support the treaty,” said Thomas Countryman, the former acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security who is now chair of the board of the Arms Control Association.
“It has the effect — and perhaps this is the intention — of signaling a diminished U.S. commitment to its NATO allies,” he added.
Greg Delawie, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control who was responsible for the Open Skies Treaty from 2012 to 2015, predicted the U.S. will come to regret the decision.
“Open Skies works; its costs are minimal; and it is popular for its shared military and political value with allies,” he said. “If the treaty completely falls apart following a U.S. withdrawal, Russia will have greater freedom to make trouble in areas.