Inside the Ring: House panel moves to stop Russia spy flights over U.S.

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The House Committee on Armed Services this week imposed restrictions on the Obama administration that would prevent Russian aircraft from using advanced sensors during treaty-approved spy flights over the United States.

The limits are contained in the committee’s mark-up of the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill that was completed Tuesday.

The bill would block funding for any certification under the Open Skies Treaty for upgrading sensors aboard Russian aircraft used to conduct surveillance flights over the U.S. The treaty permits flyovers as a confidence-building measure among the 34 nations that are signatories.

Under the bill, funding would be blocked unless the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of national intelligence certify to Congress that Russia is “no longer illegally occupying Ukrainian territory.”

Another criterion for approving the upgraded aircraft is that the officials must certify that the new sensors do not pose a high risk to U.S. national security.

A third restriction is that no funding for the aircraft certification can be spent until the three officials certify to Congress that Russia is “no longer violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty [INF] and is in compliance with the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.”

U.S. officials say Russia is in noncompliance with both treaties, with two 1987 INF treaty issues considered militarily significant.

Russia and the United States in recent weeks engaged in a verbal tug of war over the spy flights. Moscow temporarily blocked a U.S. over flight of Russia last month, claiming the U.S. and Czech Republic team conducting the flight had failed to follow proper procedures.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told the news agency ITAR-TASS April 21 in explaining why the U.S. over flight was blocked that Moscow regretted the U.S. opposition to “our digital observation equipment” for its new aircraft.

The White House has said it is reviewing whether to approve the new Russian spy aircraft and has not made a decision.

The new Russian aircraft in question is the Tu-214ON, which will be outfitted with digital imagery equipment, sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar, and infrared gear.

The radar is capable of imaging through some barriers and covers used to mask advanced weaponry and is raising new fears among military and intelligence officials that Russian electronic spies will learn secrets of arms development programs.

The House measure is said to have bipartisan support and is likely to win the backing of the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats recently raised concerns about the new Russian aircraft.

Four members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — Republicans Dan Coats of Indiana and James E. Risch of Idaho, and Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — wrote to Secretary of State John F. Kerry to question approval of the new equipment.

“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,” they stated.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

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