Obama Warned Against Enabling Enhanced Russian Spying

Lawmakers: High-powered cameras would help Russia collect intel on America

Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama / AP
June 17, 2016

Leading Republicans appealed to President Obama this week to reject Russia’s request to fly surveillance planes with high-powered digital cameras during overflights, warning that the new technology would enable the Kremlin to collect intelligence more effectively.

Russia’s failure to comply with some provisions of the Open Skies Treaty, which allows member countries to conduct unarmed aerial observation flights over one another, should preclude Vladimir Putin from using planes with high-tech sensors for the overflights, Reps. Ed Royce (Calif.), Mac Thornberry (Texas), and Devin Nunes (Calif.), all of whom are committee chairs, wrote in a letter to the president.

"Given the threat to U.S. national security and Russia’s continued failure to uphold both the spirit and letter of its commitments under the agreement, we urge you to deny this request and explore whether commercially available satellite imagery can better fulfill the goals of this Treaty," they wrote.

The Open Skies Treaty, signed in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and entered into force in 2002, allows for unarmed aerial observation flights over its 34 signatories—including the United States and Russia—in order to promote transparency in military forces and activities and monitor arms control.

News broke in late February that Russia would ask permission of the Open Skies Consultative Commission to begin flying surveillance planes with the high-powered digital cameras during the overflights. The request started a 120-day clock for the United States and other member countries to consider the request, meaning the decision is imminent.

Military and intelligence officials have expressed concern that Russia has exploited the treaty to collect intelligence on the United States, which the lawmakers said could become more damaging if Russia were allowed to use the high-tech cameras. The State Department has also determined Russia is failing to implement parts of the treaty.

Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, disclosed in a letter to Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.) this year that the treaty "has become a critical component of Russia’s intelligence collection capability directed at the United States."

"In addition to overflying military installations, Russian Open Skies flights can overfly and collect on Department of Defense and national security or national critical infrastructure," Haney wrote. "The vulnerability exposed by exploitation of this data and costs of mitigation are increasingly difficult to characterize."

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work also told Congress that Pentagon officials believe Russia to be "going beyond the original intent of the treaty."

"Instead of using the Treaty for its intended purpose, Russia has been using its Open Skies flights to expand its espionage capabilities," Royce, Thornberry, and Nunes wrote this week. "Allowing Russia to upgrade the sensors used in these flights to digital technology would only make this worse."

The lawmakers also cited congressional testimony from Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who expressed "great concern" about Russia’s intentions regarding the new technology in March.

"The things that you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things you can do with post-processing, allows Russia, in my opinion, to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities," Stewart told lawmakers. "So from my perspective, it gives them a significant advantage."

When asked whether U.S. participation in the treaty is worthwhile, Stewart indicated that he would "love to deny" Russia the upgraded capabilities.

The State Department concluded last year that Russia continued to "fail to meet Treaty obligations to allow effective observation of its entire territory by refusing access in three areas," including parts of Moscow and Chechnya. Russia also failed to "provide priority flight clearance for certain Open Skies flights, thereby preventing States Parties from effective observation of the territory of Russia in accordance with Treaty provisions," according to a report issued by the department. Russia has also failed to provide copies of imagery collected during overflights of the United States, another treaty requirement.

"The Treaty is becoming a one-sided agreement that benefits only one signatory," Royce, Thornberry, and Nunes asserted.

They said the Obama administration should reject Russia’s request and also explore modern alternatives to the overflights, particularly commercial satellite imagery.

"It is important to note that the quality of readily available commercial satellite imagery has dramatically advanced since the Treaty was signed," they wrote. "Transitioning from reconnaissance flights to commercial satellite imagery may provide the confidence building measures and level of transparency that all signatories, including our allies and partners, envisioned at the outset of the Treaty while minimizing Russia’s opportunities for abuse and obstruction."

"We urge you to heed the advice of senior military personnel and other officials and reject this Russian request while examining modern alternatives to these flights," the lawmakers concluded.

The letter comes at a moment of high tension between the United States and Russia, given the latter’s military operations in Ukraine, Syria, and near the Baltics.