The Obama administration has scheduled a deputies committee meeting this week—tentatively set for Tuesday—to resolve a bitter inter-agency dispute over a request from Russia with respect to the Open Skies program. Informed sources believe the White House is likely to side with the State Department, which wants to accommodate Russia, over the objections of the Obama administration's Defense Department and intelligence agencies.
The Open Skies treaty allows the United States and Russia to fly over each other's territory with planes loaded with certain agreed-upon sensor packages, in order to ensure compliance with arms control agreements and to provide assurance against preparations for various military surprises. Russia has asked the U.S. to agree to an upgrade in the sensor package their planes can carry. (Obviously, the exact nature of these sensor packages and the proposed upgrades is highly classified.) The request would apparently result in a significant increase in Russian spying capabilities; the first response from Pentagon was, according to one government official close to the situation, "You've got to be kidding." But the State Department has been making the case for acceding to the Russians' demands, and the White House seems to be on State's side. The White House has also stonewalled requests for information from the congressional intelligence committees.
House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers is apparently so concerned that he sent the president an unusual public letter Friday. Here's the press release:
HPSCI Chairman Mike Rogers Urges President Obama to Reject President Putin’s Attempt to Get a Clearer Look into US and NATO Countries
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Chairman Mike Rogers today urged President Obama to reject a request by President Putin to upgrade Russia’s technical capability for observational flights of US and NATO counties by airplane.
The United States, NATO, and Russia in 1992 signed the Open Skies Treaty. The Treaty allows the parties to conduct specific, numbered, and targeted observational airplane flights over each other’s countries. Any changes to the very specific guidelines in the Treaty must be certified by all parties before they can be used.
In a letter sent to President Obama today, Chairman Rogers wrote, “Given current world events, President Putin appears to be more than willing to disregard international norms of behavior in seeking geopolitical advantage. We should not now naively believe he will unilaterally adhere to the limitations of the Open Skies Treaty.”
Rogers said, “Putin’s attempt to upgrade Russia’s sensing capabilities now is particularly problematic. I have serious concerns about the technical advantages Russia would gain.”
One source close to Rogers confirms that Rogers wouldn't have written such a letter unless the intelligence community was "very alarmed" by what seemed to be the likely White House decision.
Meanwhile, THE WEEKLY STANDARD has obtained the text of a letter from a bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee—addressed, interestingly, to Secretary of State Kerry, whose department has been pushing the agreement.
The Honorable John F. Kerry Secretary of State Department of State Washington, DC 20521
Dear Mr. Secretary,
In the past few years, the Russian Federation completed construction of two new Open Skies aircraft that will support digital photograph equipment, sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, and infrared equipment. As you know, state parties to the Open Skies Treaty must certify any new aircraft before it can be used for treaty observation flights.
We understand that an upcoming Deputies Committee meeting will address the question of Russian certification. We strongly urge you to carefully evaluate the ramifications of certification on future Open Skies observation flights and consider the equities of key U.S. Government stakeholders.
The invasion of Crimea and Moscow’s ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine using subversive methods in sufficient enough to counsel further review, irrespective of any technical concerns that may exist.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this important and timely manner.
Mark W. Warner
James E. Risch
Will President Obama overrule his own defense and intelligence officials in order to placate Vladimir Putin's Russia?