Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Trump to withdraw US from Open Skies Treaty | Pentagon drops ban on recruits who had virus | FBI says Corpus Christi shooting terror-related

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: President Trump on Thursday caused an uproar in Washington with his newly revealed plans to withdraw from another major arms control agreement, the Open Skies Treaty, citing Russia’s violations of the pact.

The Open Skies Treaty allows the pact’s 35 signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation flights over each other with the intention of providing transparency about military activities to avoid miscalculations that could lead to war.

Trump told reporters at the White House that Washington and Moscow could reach a new agreement following the U.S. withdrawal.

“I think we have a very good relationship with Russia, but Russia didn’t adhere to the treaty,” Trump told reporters before departing for a trip to Michigan. “So, until they adhere, we will pull out.”

“But there’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together,” the president continued. “I think what’s going to happen is, we’re going to pull out and they’re going to come back and want to make a deal. We’ve had a very good relationship, lately, with Russia.”

Intent to withdraw coming Friday: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States will formally submit its notice of intent to withdraw from the agreement on Friday.

“Effective six months from tomorrow, the United States will no longer be a party to the treaty,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty.”

Why the US is leaving: The treaty, which went into force in 2002, has long been in the crosshairs of defense hawks, who argue Russian violations give Moscow an unfair advantage over Washington.

“President Trump has made clear that the United States will not remain a party to international agreements that are being violated by the other parties and are no longer in America’s interests,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in a statement later Thursday that did not explicitly address the president’s plans.

O’Brien referenced the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump has withdrawn the United States from both pacts.

Russia in the past has restricted flights over Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Because of those restrictions, an April report from the State Department said “the United States continued to assess that Russia was in violation of the Treaty on Open Skies” in 2019, a determination first made in 2017.

Further argumentsIn addition to accusing Russia of “flagrantly and continuously” violating the agreement with flight restrictions, Pompeo on Thursday accused Moscow of using imagery from the flights to target critical infrastructure in the U.S. and Europe. That would not violate the accord, but Pompeo argued it “fatally undermined the very intent of the treaty as a confidence- and trust-building measure.”

Pressed on call with reporters for an example of Russia using imagery like that, Chris Ford, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, said he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.”

GOP lawmaker response: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a vocal critic of the treaty, has urged Trump to withdraw from the pact and divert funds spent on the treaty to other military projects over Russia’s abuse of the pact. Cotton lauded Trump’s decision in a statement Thursday in response to reports disclosing the plans.

“The Open Skies Treaty started life as a good-faith agreement between major powers and died an asset of Russian intelligence. For Mr. Putin, the treaty was just another scheme to snatch a military and surveillance advantage over the U.S. and NATO,” Cotton said. 

A ‘dangerous and misguided decision’Meanwhile, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), another Armed Services member, criticized the move as a “dangerous and misguided decision” that “cripples our ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia, while allowing Russian reconnaissance flights over U.S. bases in Europe to continue.”

Supporters of the treaty argue it is an invaluable tool for the United States to support its allies, saying U.S. partners without sophisticated spy satellites benefit from the unclassified imagery.

Rumors prompted pushback: Trump’s impending move to withdraw from the treaty has been rumored for months. In October, a quartet of top Democrats in Congress wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Pompeo urging against withdrawal.

Last month, the same group of lawmakers released a statement warning Trump could use the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to withdraw from the accord with little attention, saying such a move “in the midst of a global health crisis is not only shortsighted, but also unconscionable.”

“This effort appears intended to limit appropriate congressional consultation on, and scrutiny of, the decision,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in an April statement.

Another treaty at risk: The decision by Trump to withdraw from the treaty follows last year’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a decades-old Cold War arms control pact with Russia, over Moscow’s violations.

The latest move is likely to raise questions about Trump’s plans for New START, the last remaining arms control pact with Russia that is up for renewal in February.

Intel figure blasts move to withdraw: A former head of the CIA on Thursday responded to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, calling the move “insane.”

Gen. Michael Hayden, who served as director of the CIA mostly under President George W. Bush between 2006 and 2009, replied on Twitter to a member of George Conway’s Lincoln Project in reaction to the news of the withdrawal.

“This is insane,” he said. “I was the director of CIA.”


PENTAGON RESCINDS BAN ON RECRUITS PREVIOUSLY HOSPITALIZED WITH COVID-19: The Defense Department has rescinded a policy that banned recruits from enlisting in the military if they have been hospitalized for coronavirus, the Pentagon’s head of manpower said Thursday.

The original policy, released earlier this month, began as a total ban on recruits who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past. That was then changed to potentially barring the enlistee if they had been hospitalized due to the illness.

But the “interim guidance” has now been pulled and the department has returned to its previous process and guidelines for ushering recruits into the military, Matthew Donovan, the under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, told reporters at the Pentagon.

“At the same time, we’re having our health professionals and our doctors and researchers take a look at that, come up with any recommendations that they’ll provide to me and [Defense Secretary Mark Esper]. And I think they’re almost done with that now,” he said.

Waiver needed? It depends: Asked if a recruit would need a waiver to join if they had contracted the illness and recovered, Donovan said the military will review such instances on a case-by-case basis.

“Any infectious disease, we want to make sure they’re not infectious at the time. … There’s a lot of unknowns about this virus right now. Are there any long-term, lasting effects? That’s what our health care professionals are looking at right now, and they’ll come up with that recommendation on if there’s any changes required to the accession standard,” he said.

Donovan added that he had explained the policy earlier on Thursday morning to Senate Armed Services Committee members worried about the ban and its effects on recruiting.

The background: The Pentagon raced over the past several months to set up new protocols to prevent any recruit from bringing coronavirus into the military as the pandemic overtook the country.

Those new practices include an initial screening in the recruit’s home state, a screening at the military entrance processing centers and then again once they are moved to initial training facilities, with a quarantine before training begins. 

Doctors, scientists and researchers are still not sure whether the new illness has any short- or long-term effects, including possible damage to the lungs or susceptibility to contracting the virus at another point in time. 


CORPUS CHRISTI SHOOTING TERROR-RELATED, FBI SAYS: The shooting at the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas on Thursday is terrorism related, the FBI said. 

The shooter, who has not been identified, is dead, but a second person of interest may be at large in the community, according to the FBI. 

“We have determined that the incident this morning at the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi is terrorism related. We are working diligently with our state, local and federal partners with this investigation, which is fluid and evolving,” said Leah Greeves, FBI supervisor senior resident agent in Corpus Christi.

During a news conference, Greeves encouraged the public “to remain calm.” 

The shooting: The naval air station at Corpus Christi, Texas, was put on lockdown after a shooter opened fire on the base Thursday morning.

The station posted on Facebook that a shooter was active on the base “in the vicinity of the North Gate” and that naval security forces responded about 6:15 a.m. local time.

The shooter was later neutralized and the lockdown was lifted, according to several updates. 

One security force member, a female sailor, was injured and taken to a local hospital, Steve Strickland, a spokesman with Navy Region Southeast, told Stars and Stripes. She is in good condition and expected to be released Thursday.



The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies Nuclear Deterrence Forum will host a webcast on the implications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “escalate to win policy,” with Mark Schneider, senior analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy; Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; and retired Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem at 10 a.m.



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Tags Adam Smith Bob Menendez Donald Trump Eliot Engel George Conway Jack Reed Jeanne Shaheen Mark Esper Mike Pompeo Tom Cotton Vladimir Putin

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