Correcting “Storm Clouds Gather Over Open Skies Treaty”

Trump admin officials pollute the media ecosystem, others spread their disinformation. Let’s learn from this.

On October 23, 2019 a fellow from the The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published an Open Skies Treaty piece titled “Storm Clouds Gather Over Open Skies Treaty”. Two weeks prior, the Open Skies Treaty was in the news when White House NSC plans to quit the treaty, at the end of October, were leaked to the press. The article was published four days before the White House National Security Council officially planned to release in the media their intent to leave the Open Skies Treaty, coinciding with the October 27th 2019 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid, which saturated defence news that day. Seven days after the CSIS article’s publication, Tim Morrison (John Bolton’s former henchman who shepherded the paperwork to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty under Trump’s pen) resigned(?) from his NSC post, a day before his testimony before Congress over the Ukraine quid-pro-quo scandal that you already forgot about, because that was so last year.

October 30th, 2019 — Audrey McNamara for The Daily Beast
“Top Russia Official on National Security Council to Step Down: Report”

As it was leaked at the start of October, there was an White House NSC meeting where multiple departments were gathered, and told that the United States government was leaving the Open Skies Treaty, and they all better have their houses in order for that, by October 26th. It was unclear to me why, at the start of October, that October 26th was the designated day. From a treaty withdrawal point of view, the United States wouldn’t be able to actually withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty for at least another six months, notice would need to be given to other treaty signatories.

October 27th, 2019 — Michael R. Gordon and Vivian Salama for WSJ
“Trump Moves Closer to Ending Another Post-Cold War Treaty”

October 27th, 2019 — Michael C. Bender, Gordon Lubold and Raja Abdulrahim for WSJ
“Islamic State Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Died in U.S. Raid, Trump Says”

After the initial leak of withdrawal information, almost every publication who printed a story about the Open Skies Treaty did so earlier in early October 2019, except the Wall Street Journal who published their story on October 27th.

Here were some of the stories published up to two weeks prior to the WSJ:

October 9th, 2019 — Fred Kaplan for Slate
“John Bolton Is Gone, but Somehow He’s Still Killing Perfectly Good Arms-Control Treaties”

October 9th, 2020 — Alex Ward for Vox
“Trump may soon ban Russian observation flights over US military bases. That’s a bad thing.”

October 10th, 2019 — Steve Liewer for Omaha World-Herald
“Trump’s rumored pullout from Open Skies Treaty would idle Offutt jets”

October 21, 2019 — Michael Krepon for Forbes
“Is Trump Going To Kill The Open Skies Treaty? Ukraine Would Lose While Putin Wins”

No article previous to the Wall Street Journal on October 27th, about the withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, had an exclusive quote from Tim Morrison, who by all reports was the main driving force behind the withdrawal after John Bolton left the Trump administration, and Bolton was the guy who hired Morrison as his henchman. You remember him, I hope?

August 2018 — Spencer Ackerman for The Daily Beast
“John Bolton Brings a Nuclear Superhawk Into the White House”

Considering the leak at the start of October was that “something” was being planned to do with exiting the open skies treaty on ~October 26th, and the WSJ ran their piece on October 27th, on the same day as the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid, which was planned and delayed for months; I believe the news of the Trump administrations intent to leave was supposed to be coordinated with the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid, and the WSJ stuck to that plan with their trusted White House insider source. No other media outlets ran an exclusive quote from Tim Morrison, which shows WSJ was in communication with Tim Morrison for this article. The WSJ could have broke the story earlier, or ignored it completely, as others did. I think this is damning evidence that the WSJ was holding back on reporting the facts, but you may not agree. To those that don’t believe I’m right; there are insiders in the White House, who are sources for journalists, and sources for researchers at think tanks — they don’t all have American best interests at heart, and they don’t all tell the truth. Previously, “insiders” were viewed as trusted individuals you could count on for the inside scoop, but when that insider is in the Trump administration, why would we trust anything they say, especially when it’s contradicted with facts? I confronted the CSIS fellow who wrote this with clear factual problems by email, and was dismissed. Therefore, CSIS has been aware of these factual shortcomings for almost a year, and have left them to languish and mislead people.

Let’s review the issues

October 23, 2019 — Iain King, visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the CSIS in Washington, D.C
“Storm Clouds Gather Over Open Skies Treaty”

While there is little dispute that Moscow has thwarted the spirit of the treaty and is inhibiting its full and proper implementation, most signatories want to resolve the problems within the terms of the accord

This framing is reminiscent of a Trump administration talking point; talking about the “spirit” of treaty compliance, not the compliance issues themselves. The American-alleged violations are just that; alleged. There is no explanation about what “full and proper” means, or any suggestion the United States might be accused of violations as well. This is just a preamble, but already sets the tone that the Americans are justified in their actions, and forgets to mention *all* Open Skies Treaty signatories, not just “many”, as alleged, disapprove of the American choice to withdraw from the treaty; that’s because it is unnecessary, and counterproductive.

May 22, 2020 — by Aaron Mehta & Lorne Cook, AP / DefenseNews
“European states vow to stay in Open Skies Treaty despite US exit”

The treaty also provides insights into readiness by using heat-sensitive equipment to detect how much fuel is in aircraft tanks stationed on the ground.

There are no certified sensor configurations on any nations’ open skies treaty planes which include IR or any such sensors, beyond the visual light spectrum. In the entire history of the Open Skies Treaty there has never been an IR sensor certified for use on any open skies treaty aircraft, ever. The above statement is fictional, and should be removed in its entirety. The statement has been misinforming readers for the past year, and has not been retracted or edited in any way to make it accurate.

For several years, Russia has played fast and loose with the treaty.

I do not feel this is a serious statement; it suggests a lack of understanding of the issues, and willingness to fluff off details hoping the reader doesn’t ask questions.

Citing dubious safety grounds

There is no evidence shown that suggests the author knows what the safety reasons are that have been cited by the Russian Federation to limit overflights of Kaliningrad Oblast, about the size of Connecticut, to 500km in length, or how the issue even came to be; the allegations are dismissed out of hand, just like Trump administration officials do.

(Russia)is keeping Open Skies flights out of Kaliningrad

This is an untrue statement, in fact, I have a declassified Royal Canadian Air Force mission report from the joint Canadian-American overflight of Kaliningrad just a few years ago, which proves flights are being allowed over Kaliningrad. Blocking flights is not what’s happening, according to the United States Department of State, Government of Lithuania, and Government of Estonia, just to name a few. Unfortunately, that talking point is exactly what the far-right-wing Republican faction who has been trying to destroy the Open Skies Treaty since at least 2013 wants people to believe, so I have no doubt sources near to the Trump administration would make this kind of claim, but it’s still false.

Here is the statement showing they do fly over Kaliningrad, and the United States was leading the joint flight; straight from the Government of Estonia on February 26th, 2020.

The leading country of the observation flight was the United States, while the team also included members of the military from Estonia and Lithuania (..)
On February 19 (2020), an observation flight along the route Kubinka-Belarus-Kaliningrad, as well as a separate flight above Kaliningrad took place.

(Russia) is also denying access near Georgia’s territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which only Russia regards as independent countries)

Why not explain why that’s a point of contention? The area in question is a 10km strip of land on the Russian side of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia border, a very small strip of land. The treaty states no flight plans are allowed to fly within 10km of non-signatory open skies treaty states; Russia calls Abkhazia and South Ossetia independent, therefore they obviously cannot allow open skies treaty flights within 10km of their border. As multiple officials have stated, this isn’t a treaty problem, this is a statehood recognition problem, and insignificant to overall treaty implementation, unless being used as an excuse to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.

This has angered (..) several U.S. allies who believe that the move would play into Russia’s hands

Shouldn’t that be clarified? The author doesn’t mean “several”, it’s all of them. All American allies who are signatory to the Open Skies Treaty are against an American withdrawal. Not many, not some; all of them.

(after American withdrawal) likely, Moscow will use it as an excuse to curtail further access for countries like Ukraine.

There is no indication of what this refers to. The statement is baseless, and in light of the other inaccuracies, should be questioned.

Russia may also cite technical violations to cut out several NATO countries.

There is no indication of what this refers to, and no NATO countries have been targeted with whatever “technical" violations are supposed to allege. Based on the rest of the inaccurate statements, this should at least be questioned.

U.S. allies have a direct stake in Open Skies and may well distance themselves from the administration’s position or actively condemn it.

Let me try to rephrase this; the Trump administration is completely alone in the international community, with not a single voice of support across dozens of countries, allies, who are signatory to the Treaty on Open Skies. “Distancing themselves from”, or “condemning” Trump administration efforts to withdraw, or even kill the Open Skies Treaty, are not just expected, they are a reality. The United States is completely isolated in its withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty and enjoys absolutely no support from allies, at all. Not one. Soft pedalling universal opposition to American withdrawal, portraying opposition to withdrawal as the voices of a few, is not being honest, when unanimous allied opposition is a fact.

The United States and Russia, both with a large armada of high-tech satellites, have less need for the treaty than most of the other signatories, who still draw great utility from Open Skies.

This is a misleading statement that I’ve seen spread by Trump administration officials, and it’s seldom fact-checked. The value of the Open Skies Treaty does not come, nor has it ever come, from better imagery than American satellites can produce, even in 1992. Positioning the treaty as being obsoleted by better satellites is a fallacy, which just happens to be a talking point of those who are trying to destroy the Open Skies Treaty. All treaty-certified sensors are tamper proof, and provide sufficient detail for any signatory to point out scorch marks in a field, a missing tanks from a weapons storage facility, or new border fortifications, and any signatory can use those images as indisputable evidence of what is shown. That is not true of American spy satellite imagery, despite superior image resolution. For the Open Skies Treaty, non-repudiation is prized higher than image fidelity, and that’s the truth the Trump administration wants to keep away from the press, because it destroys their satellite-supremacy argument.

While the over-arching mood of this article published by CSIS is seemingly Open Skies Treaty-positive, intentionally or not, distributes disinformation which serves to damage the treaty, like a Trojan Horse of disinformation. It is not enough to be uplifting and positive about the treaty; the facts, not just the feelings, matter. It has taken decades to come to a point where 34 countries have agreed on a framework allowing mutually beneficial observation flights, and partisan operatives of the Republican party, some in uniform, are out to destroy the Open Skies Treaty, and will shamelessly lie about it. Unfortunately, it seems like some of those same people, out to kill the Open Skies Treaty, are trusted sources for CSIS fellows, making CSIS publications on the Open Skies Treaty untrustworthy, by my standards.

One of the most disturbing things that was stated in our email exchange last year was that this article had been reviewed by eight esteemed colleagues, presumably some of the best and brightest CSIS had to offer; and it was on their advice that no changes were made. That solidifies in my mind that CSIS is not an organisation that is centrist or bipartisan as they claim, and I do not believe should be taken seriously about any arms control issues past, present, or future since they have been manipulated by the Trump administration. The glaring Open Skies Treaty errors in this piece, even inventing aircraft capabilities, should never have been published, and should have at least been corrected last year when I identified the errors. The truth was ignored in favour of rumours from unnamed sources that have festered for a whole year.

That should tell you all you need to know.

Steffan Watkins is a open source research consultant interested in the Open Skies Treaty and its implementation, among other things. #OpenSkiesTreaty

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