U.S. OKs Russian Overflights Despite Worries About Intrusive Surveillance
June 28, 2016
by Mike Eckel
WASHINGTON -- The United States has authorized a Russian surveillance jet to overfly U.S. territory as part of an international treaty, closing a dispute that had elicited vocal criticism from some lawmakers over the technology being used by the Russians.
The decision, made by an interagency government group, focused on the scope of the Open Skies Treaty, a 14-year-old agreement that aims to increase transparency and international security by allowing member nations to fly over each other's territory and monitor military installations or other objects.
The final decision to authorize the Russian flights was made after consultations in Moscow that wrapped up June 28, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the process.
Earlier this year, the Russian government formally requested that its specially outfitted Tupolev Tu-154 jet be allowed to conduct an overflight of U.S. territory. But some U.S. lawmakers and several top defense officials publicly voiced concern that Russia was using advanced camera technology that would be far more intrusive than in the past.
"The things that you can see, the amount of data you can collect, the things you can do with postprocessing, allows (sic) Russia, in my opinion, to get incredible foundational intelligence on critical infrastructure, bases, ports, all of our facilities," Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a House of Representatives committee in March.
Those doubts were deepened by the U.S. State Department's compliance reports, which said Russia had put some restrictions on U.S. surveillance flights, particularly around the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, and near the Caucasus region, where Georgia is located.
That -- plus the surge in tensions surrounding Russian military actions in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere -- led lawmakers to include amendments to annual defense-policy legislation that would deny funding to the Defense Department unless they could allay those concerns.
State Department officials, meanwhile, repeatedly sought to rebut some of the criticisms, arguing that denying the Russian request would harm U.S. flights and potentially undermine the treaty. The department also pointed out the United States conducted far more overflights of Russian territory.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request from RFE/RL for comment on the decision.
Nor did some of the Republican lawmakers who had been critical of the proposed flights.
Relations between Washington and Moscow are at a post-Cold War low following Russia's seizure of Crimea and continued support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, seemingly divergent aims in an armed conflict in Syria, a recently launched European missile shield, and NATO's beefed up presence in Europe in response to what the alliance and its easternmost members says is an increasingly assertive Russia.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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