August 19, 2017

A Journalist's Primer on the Open Skies Treaty

You're a journalist. Your editor just told you you have to write something on the Treaty on Open Skies, or the Open Skies Treaty, because someone in Washington made a statement about it, and they said it had to do with Russia. Everyone loves reading about Russia; am I right?.  Unfortunately, you can't find a whole lot out there from primary sources, and the US Government is giving you the run-around. All you have to go on is whatever statement the politician you're covering made. Were they telling the truth? Can you fact check what they said?  How do you do so, if nobody's talking, or even knows anything about this damn treaty?
Excerpts from US Air Force manual 16-604 dated 2016-05-31 titled

Well let me help you.

Who the hell are you?

I'm a guy who's interested, who's been following this treaty for years, who's had the opportunity to talk to some very well versed people, both on and off the record.  I want to give journalists the ability to critically-think their way around whatever it is they're covering regarding the Open Skies Treaty, provide primary source information to them, and give some suggestions on who else to ask questions to; who will answer intelligently, with experience and knowledge.  Taking a government source and prefixing the statement with "a Senior Government Official said..." is not good enough to absolve a story from the responsibility of the written word.

Why? Public Affairs.  Clearly-established ground rules on control of media movement and actions are necessary to prevent interference with inspections. Wing Public Affairs offices will comply with USG and DoD posture for OST flights. (T-0). The USG and DOD posture is “response to query (RTQ).” This means Open Skies Treaty personnel can respond to inquiries but not actively promote activities. There are no restrictions placed on articles for the base newspaper or website that reflect that an OST mission or activity is taking place or was recently completed. (T-3)I noticed that Journalists are at a disadvantage on the Open Skies Treaty, more so than many topics.  There is very little information out there that can be consulted for background information and research; that's not an accident. I'm concerned that journalists will not find the objective answers they're looking for while researching the story, and will inadvertently present a one-sided story directly influenced by political actors that want to control the message. Experts in the State Department Arms Control and Verification department are not at liberty to reach out to the press and inform them how well everything is working, in many ways.  US Air Force manual 16-604 dated 2016-05-31 titled "IMPLEMENTATION OF, AND COMPLIANCE WITH, THE TREATY ON OPEN SKIES" quite clearly states the US Air Force will not publicise the flights, but will answer questions from the media is asked through their Public Affairs department. Well, the catch there is, if a Russian plane is flying over the United States, how would the media know, if the US Air Force won't tell you? Welcome to Twitter; where wonks like myself are keeping an eye out and will Tweet about the #OpenSkiesTreaty flight when we find out about it.

7.6. Public Affairs (PA)  7.6.1. In accordance with standing OASD(PA) guidance, the DoD PA posture is: response to inquiry only. 7.6.2. If media coverage of Open Skies activities is accommodated, host units will do so IAW DOD "Principles of Information," SAF/PA, DTRA/PA, OASD(PA), and installation PA guidance. (T-0). Host units will consider requests by news media to cover these activities on a case-by-case basis. (T-3) Unit PA offices will comply with established higher-level PA guidance and develop an internal information plan to accommodate this guidance. (T-2) Local media interest may be accommodated on a not-to-interfere basis with Open Skies activities, and only with the DTRA Escort Team Chief’s concurrence. The installation PA office will keep the community aware of OST activities via routine meetings between key civic leaders and base officials. (T-3) Host units will use prepared news releases whenever possible using coordinated and approved language from PA guidance for Open Skies treaty authored by DTRA. (T- 3) So what does all that mean? I think this means that you're going to need to pull information out of the US Government, and they're not going to want to provide you anything. It will be like pulling teeth.
In researching the Open Skies Treaty you probably discovered was the Treaty on Open Skies, or Open Skies Treaty, has the same name as some commercial multinational aviation trade agreements, also known by the name Open Skies. These have nothing to do with each other, and unfortunately it's hard to tell them apart with Google.

Pro Tip:
When searching for something to do with the Open Skies Treaty, try the following search terms.
open skies treaty russia
Chances are, all references to the treaty on the internet will include the word "Russia".

The Open Skies Treaty is not a bilateral treaty between the United States and Russia. You don't need to limit yourself to talking to just the Americans, or just the Russians. It is a 34-way multinational treaty between the following countries; all of the countries have equal say, and are affected by anything the United States or Russia arbitrarily does. I suspect many would be more than happy to unload on you if you asked them.

Belarus The French Republic Kingdom of the Netherlands Turkey
Belgium The Republic of Georgia Norway Ukraine
Bosnia and Herzegovina Germany Poland The United Kingdom
Bulgaria Greece Portugal The United States
Canada Hungary Romania
Croatia Iceland The Russian Federation
The Czech Republic Italy Slovakia
Denmark Latvia Slovenia
Estonia Lithuania Spain
Finland Luxembourg Sweden

Each of these countries has at least two government departments with rolls to play regarding the treaty, the US has three. 

Each has an analogue to Global Affairs Canada or the United States Department of State, which manage the treaty at a diplomatic-level.
Each has an analogue to the Royal Canadian Air Force or United States Air Force, who implement the treaty on an operational-level.
I do not understand how the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) fits in with the other two, but they are also pivotal in the execution of Open Skies Treaty missions over the USA and Russia.

If you are a correspondant outside the US, or have contacts outside the US, why not discuss the Open Skies Treaty with other national Foreign Affairs departments. I've never heard an interview with the Italians, the French, the Spanish.. well, any other countries regarding their Open Skies Treaty opinions. Being a 34+ nation treaty, it can afford more interesting interview opportunities than a simple bilateral agreement, like the old SALT or START agreements. Do you think 34 nations' representatives could synchronize their stories before speaking to the cameras, if the media were asking questions and on the ball? I bet the head of the Slovenian delegation to the OSCC would have some interesting things to say about the American Open Skies policies; if only they were asked!

You might not realize that the people flying these missions, don't actually know what they're photographing.  The Royal Canadian Air Force is given direction to perform overflights of Russia, but they are only given coordinates of the targets for their observation mission. While military intelligence might be giving them part of the list of targets to photograph, other branches of the Canadian government could be asking for the information and proving their own list of sites they would like photographed. While the crews of the Open Skies Treaty plane performing the overflight might have a good idea of what they're taking pictures of, sometimes it's less obvious. If you want to know how the treaty is really operating, you want to talk to the Air Force personnel who are doing it.

If you want to know how negotiations and amendments to the treaty are going, at the latest meeting in Geneva, you want to talk to Global Affairs Canada, the State Department, or your favourite national equivalent. They are the diplomatic interface that makes the treaty work, and while they do talk to those who are actually performing the flights and executing the missions, they are the bean counters, not the boots on the ground (er, boots in the air?).

The Open Skies Treaty is the brainchild of Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, but it was only resurrected and signed much later, in 1992, by George H.W. Bush, and came into force in 2002.

Unlike a topic like cancelling people's health coverage, which can get people quite animated, there will be no outcry over the Open Skies Treaty, because people don't know what it is, that it's in place, and flights have been happening since 2002. Russians have been conducting flights over the US, almost monthly, for 15 years, and it's still "news" to people each time it makes headlines.  This is, of course, partially due to the lack of publicity out of the US Government.  Also, as I told Royal Canadian Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Veillette, Section Head of Strategic Joint Staff, Arms Control and Verification 4, arms control is not sexy.  Without some sort of sizzler or scandal, I think it's been hard to get the media and public attention arms control treaties deserve.  I hope that's about to change. 

If you're researching a story about an American official, politician or appointee, disparaging the Open Skies Treaty; shouldn't there be 33 other voices agreeing with him? Issuing press releases?

Maybe, as a journalist who's looking for confirmation of a statement from the current administration, you'd like to interview a former head of the State Department who might contradict today's message?  Yes, that's an excellent idea.  Hillary Clinton, you may have heard of her, was a big fan of the Open Skies treaty, and a huge supporter of going digital and away from the wet film cameras that are presently used by all countries, except Russia.  Yes, Russia built, from scratch, a digital camera that adheres to all the resolution limits and stipulations in the Open Skies Treaty, and has it deployed already; which has upset the United States Defence Intelligence Agency greatly, mostly because they were shown to be wrong and politically motivated in their objections to going digital. But what about the US digital camera initiatives?  Well; budget cut-backs. You know how it is.  I'm quite sure Hillary Clinton would love to do an interview about the Open Skies Treaty and the proposed, but never implemented, US digital upgrade.  Just don't ask her about the emails, she's still touchy about the emails.

Perhaps Rose Gottemoeller, now the Deputy Secretary General of NATO, who worked with the State Department Arms Control and Compliance group from 2009 to 2016 as the Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, and then as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, would be willing to give a statement.  Although outside of her current duties, with which she is no doubt very busy, she might give a good quote.

Diana Marvin, a former senior member of the State Department Arms Control department, might have time to make a statement from her previous experience from the Obama, Bush, and Clinton years.

I'm really baffled how a treaty, proposed by the US, that promotes openness, has been perverted by the US Government into a collection of secret overflights; maybe it's 1950s paranoia that was just carried forward without much thought. Distrust of their own citizen perhaps? I really don't know. I do know that the secrecy around it provokes fear in paranoid Americans and fuels unhealthy conspiracy theories.  Can we please end the secrecy and report on these overflights as the successful multi-national treaty implementation that it is, and has been, for many years?

"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." (1914)
-Louis Brandeis, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1916-1939)


  1. A Journalist's Primer on the Open Skies Treaty, wonderful topic to be discussed and this has the best information ever. Good research has been done by you.

  2. Caught your epic Twitter thread schooling Courtney Cube, came here to say thanks!