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U.S. OKs Russian Overflights Despite Worries About Intrusive Surveillance

Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency
Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency

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 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.

A State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL on June 28 that even with the overflight approval, U.S. officials would continue to press Russia on some of the restrictions on U.S. flights.

“Even as we work to resolve these compliance concerns, the Open Skies Treaty continues to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving the treaty’s 34 states parties the ability to gather information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities of concern to them,” said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named in accordance with department policy.

One of the most vocal critics on the issue, Representative Mike Rogers (Republican-Alabama), again criticized the administration's decision to allow the flights.

"It is alarming what the administration is willing to allow Russia to get away with -- from violations of treaties to threats to U.S. military personnel and diplomats. Our nation's senior military officers and defense officials have been clear about the threats posed by allowing Russia to continue to conduct these flights,” Rogers said in a statement to RFE/RL. "This should be a no-brainer."

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.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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