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

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

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.

Kerry SAYS TOO MUCH?

Secretary of State John F. Kerry could be in hot water for private remarks he made recently that set off alarm bells among U.S. intelligence officials concerned he improperly disclosed classified electronic intelligence-gathering information, or signals intelligence — dubbed SIGINT by spies.

Mr. Kerry spoke Friday before a meeting of the Trilateral Commission, an elite group of private sector business leaders and former government officials. He revealed that the U.S. had obtained electronic intelligence indicating Moscow's role in fomenting anti-government activity in eastern Ukraine.

The remarks were recorded by Daily Beast reporter Josh Rogin, who according Joseph S. Nye, the commission's North American chairman, was able to sneak into the meeting.

Mr. Nye apologized for the security breach in a letter to Mr. Kerry: "The Commission pledges to all those who participate in our discussion that nothing said in the room may be used without the explicit permission of the speaker." The letter was obtained by Politico.

The Daily Beast quoted Mr. Kerry in a report Tuesday as telling the group "intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow, and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language. We know exactly who's giving those orders, we know where they are coming from."

The comments make clear that military communications were intercepted. Such intelligence is normally highly classified.

The State Department later claimed that Mr. Kerry was referring to Ukrainian intelligence intercepts of the Russians communicating with their agents involved in the destabilization operations.

But one U.S. official said that, either way, the public discussion of electronic intelligence secrets is at the very least a security violation.

Asked if an investigation of Mr. Kerry's remarks is underway, Shawn Turner, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said: "Not to my knowledge."

Asked by a reporter Tuesday about U.S. evidence linking Russian officials to unrest in eastern Ukraine, Pentagon spokesman Navy Adm. John Kirby said, "I'm loath to get into any kind of intelligence issues here from the podium."

"But regardless of what you call them, what uniforms they're wearing, clearly, there are what we would consider irregular elements that are at the very least, influenced by Moscow inside Ukraine," Adm. Kirby said, adding that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urged his Russian counterpart to put a stop to the destabilizing operations.

"It's an influence we'd like to see stop," Adm. Kirby said. "It's an influence that is only further fomenting the pro-Russian separatists that were already in Ukraine, fomenting and fostering the violence that they are committing."

The Russian agents in Ukraine "certainly don't behave like anything other than well-trained, professional individuals," he said. "They move and they act; they communicate very much like armed forces or military members would."

"It's clear that they are having a dangerous, violent influence inside eastern Ukraine," he added.

CHINA FILLS AFGHAN VACUUM

As the U.S. military winds down its multibillion-dollar operations in Afghanistan, China's military has begun moving in.

A delegation of senior Chinese military officials visited Kabul in March and signed a memorandum of understanding that outlines plans for $1.6 million in Chinese military assistance to Afghanistan.

According to Kabul national television, the Chinese will provide education and training, logistics support and heavy weapons spare parts as a first step in military support.

The Afghan leadership is said to be critical of U.S. plans to send its leftover military hardware, worth an estimated $7 billion, to Pakistan as part of its withdrawal. The Afghans want the hardware for their security forces.

Relations between Washington and Kabul have been soured by President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement.

Afghan leaders, including Defense Minister Besmellah Mohammadi, have said the U.S. military equipment is needed for Afghanistan's fight against the Taliban insurgency.

The failure to provide the leftover U.S. military goods has been criticized by Afghan leaders who claim it indicates the United States is not committed to Afghans' future security. The Afghans are said to fear that Pakistan and terrorists backed by Islamabad will use the U.S. military gear against them.

Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman Navy Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that there are no indications that the U.S. economic sanctions against Russia over its takeover attempts in Ukraine will disrupt U.S. military supply routes to Afghanistan.

Some 40 percent of U.S. military supplies transit Russia, mainly by rail cars, on the way to Afghanistan.

"We certainly are not aware of any major changes to the flow of logistics in and out of Afghanistan through the northern distribution network as a result of the tension that's in Ukraine," Adm. Kirby said.

However, he added: "It's something we're monitoring very, very closely, as you would expect that we would, especially as we continue to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but there's no changes that I'm aware of."

Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.

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