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What are the rules of military activity in space? NU College of Law is helping provide answers

WASHINGTON — An unidentified spacecraft sidles up to a sensitive U.S. intelligence satellite.

Maybe the craft is from Russia or China. Maybe it’s preparing to jam the satellite or eavesdrop on its top-secret communications.

Can the American military demand that the craft declare its intentions? Try to prevent its approach? Blow it out of the sky?

These are the kinds of questions experts are wrestling with as they draft a document called the Woomera Manual, an attempt to lay out how the law should be applied to military activities in space.

The manual takes its name from Australia’s Woomera township, the launch site for that country’s first satellite.

It’s an initiative spearheaded by a group of universities that includes the University of Nebraska College of Law, which has developed a specialty in space law.

“This is all about the pursuit of peace, because no one stands to lose as much as the United States, and an armed conflict in space could be devastating and catastrophic,” Nebraska law professor Jack Beard said recently. “So in times of tension, you’d rather have clearer rules to follow.”

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Beard was speaking at the NU College of Law’s 12th annual conference on space law, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Panels at the conference dealt with topics ranging from the legal aspects of commercial space activities to rules governing telecommunications in space.

The last session of the day focused on the Woomera Manual, which is supposed to be finished in 2020 and will examine what nations can and can’t do in space, as well as the gray zones where they have wiggle room.

Space is critically important to the U.S. military, Beard noted.

“All its most significant advantages depend on space,” he said. “They evaporate without space.”

Beard and the other panelists discussed the potential for military misunderstandings in space and how that could lead to unnecessary conflicts.

And they talked about applying existing laws to the new domain in an effort to safeguard civilian populations and shield neutral states.

Elsbeth Magilton, executive director of the NU College of Law’s space, cyber and telecommunications law programs, also provided an update at the conference about a NASA space law education grant.

The college has used that grant to create a space law network that includes paid NASA internships, conference opportunities, and a research and writing workshop.

In an interview, Magilton said the annual conference has been growing year by year.

“There’s lots of space conferences and lots of space events,” Magilton said. “There’s far fewer that are focused on the legal and policy considerations that really help shape what we can and can’t do in space and how we operate in space as a country.”

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Report says ExxonMobil misled public for decades

Researchers on Monday outlined a decades-long campaign of deception on climate change by the ExxonMobil oil company and the broader fossil fuel industry — and their success at confusing the American public.

The report, which was published by scientists at Harvard, George Mason and Bristol Universities, draws parallels between the campaigns launched by tobacco companies and oil industries to mislead the public about their products, both with a goal of delaying government policies and regulations that could cut into their profits.

The report was released two days before ExxonMobil is set to go to trial in New York's Supreme Court in Manhattan on allegations of misleading investors about climate change. ExxonMobil has previously dismissed such research as the work of anti-oil activists.

Revelations about ExxonMobil's campaign came from 2015 news reports in the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News, and studies previous to Monday's have documented its efforts to manipulate public opinion.

"For 60 years, the fossil fuel industry has known about the potential global warming dangers of their products. But instead of warning the public or doing something about it, they turned around and orchestrated a massive campaign of denial and delay designed to protect profits," said Geoffrey Supan, a researcher in the department of the history of science at Harvard. "The evidence is incontrovertible: Exxon misled the public."

The authors highlight the tactics used by the campaigns, including using fake experts, promoting conspiracy theories and cherry-picking evidence. And they point to specific examples employed by ExxonMobil, including a 2004 New York Times advertisement that read like an editorial. It employed traditional disinformation techniques such as questioning scientific consensus and advocating for a "balanced" scientific approach to climate change, giving weight to those skeptical of the prevailing research.

The report suggests that the disinformation campaign was successful in confusing the public and slowing a government response to a danger that oil company scientists had identified as far back as the 1970s.

Educating the public about the techniques used by these campaigns can "neutralize and inoculate the public against disinformation," said John Cook, an assistant professor of communications at George Mason University and lead author of the report.

Recent polls show a growing number of Americans believe that climate change is occurring and that it is the result of human activity.

On Oct. 10, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy sent a notice to ExxonMobil of her office's intent to sue in civil court "by engaging in unfair or deceptive acts" regarding the sale and branding of fossil fuel products.

ExxonMobil's lawyers are crying foul and have asked a Massachusetts court to slow down Healy's team — at least until the New York trial has come to an end.

Scott Silvestri, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, said the New York and Massachusetts lawsuits were "... politically motivated and resulted from a coordinated effort by anti-fossil fuel groups and contingency-fee lawyers involved in other lawsuits against industry."

He added: "ExxonMobil believes that climate change risks warrant action and it's going to take all of us — business, governments and consumers — to make meaningful progress."

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Omaha airport's $500 million makeover: Eppley preps for 3 million more passengers annually

Picture an Eppley Airfield of the future that handles up to 8 million passengers a year.

That’s 3 million more airline flyers than Eppley saw in 2018, so the Omaha airport is going to need some changes.

The Omaha Airport Authority, along with planners and architects, is refining a conceptual layout of the future Eppley Airfield terminal as it prepares for an almost four-year, $500 million construction project.

The project is called Eppley’s “terminal modernization,” and it will essentially renovate and rebuild the entire airport terminal anew.

Long term, they figure, Eppley will need 28 airline gates, up from 20 today. They’ll all be located off a single, unified concourse, not the split concourses that the airport has now.

Travelers will go through security at a single, central checkpoint, also a departure from the dual setup of today.

Restaurants and retail shops will be beyond security, grouped in a more organized way than they are today.

Airline counters will move to the second floor, leaving the first floor mainly to baggage claim.

Outside, the drive in front of the terminal will have 10 lanes — up from six — for different kinds of drivers to maneuver through the property.

In April, the Airport Authority put an initial shape to the project. Since then, Dallas architectural firm Corgan and airport planner Ricondo & Associates of Chicago have added a few concepts and switched a few ideas as the design work proceeds.

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“You get once every 35 or 40 years to be able to build something for a community that’s like this,” said Dave Roth, executive director of the Omaha Airport Authority. “I think Omaha’s ready for it.”

Traffic at Eppley has grown every year since 2013, when the number of passengers was just over 4 million for the year. Last year, the number of Eppley passengers passed 5 million for the first time.

The Airport Authority and its consultants still have work ahead before starting construction. Until now, they’ve been updating the assumptions in the airport’s 2014 master plan — which outlines capital upgrades for the airport as passenger numbers grow — and setting the scope of the upcoming project.

Now, the effort will turn toward designing the project in full detail.

Authority officials still have two potential points on the schedule where they could hold off on the project. But if all goes according to plan, construction could start in early 2021. The renovation could take between 42 and 46 months, Roth said.

The Airport Authority, a governmental entity without taxing powers, expects to issue long-term revenue bonds to fund the renovation, paid back through operational revenue from the airport and a federal passenger facility charge.

Among the recent updates by project planners: the assumption that Eppley could reach 8 million passengers by 2036 — 1 million more passengers than previous projections considered.

That kind of growth would be at the high end of Eppley’s projections, and not everything in the project needs to accommodate that level of traffic right away. But there’s no doubt Eppley traffic is steadily increasing as Omaha and its economy continue to grow, and officials want to position the airport to meet that growth.

“The business in Omaha and the airport, they go hand in hand,” Roth said. “When the business grows in Omaha, the airport grows in Omaha.”


The new parking garage at Eppley Airfield is on the left. The $500 million revamp of the terminal would include a “speed ramp” for travelers to drive directly to the third floor of the garage.

New concepts include:

  • Widening and lengthening the terminal drive. People would enter the drive farther south than they do now, closer to the long-term parking entrance.

The drive would widen to 10 lanes: four for regular drivers circulating through and dropping and picking up, three lanes for commercial traffic and three lanes for ride-share vehicles. Travelers using garage parking would gain a “speed ramp” to drive directly to the third floor of the garage.

  • Moving the airline and ticket counters to the terminal’s second floor. Projections call for 60% of the airport’s customers to enter the terminal on the second floor anyway. For people entering on the first floor, the airport will have more escalators and elevators in its future layout.
  • Changing the alignment of the concourse and airline gates somewhat. The future concourses wouldn’t extend quite as far as originally envisioned. Instead, planners want to wrap airline gates around the end hub of the concourse, fitting double the jets into the space.

Eppley would initially increase to 22 airline gates, with room to ultimately expand to 28.

Roth said the Airport Authority’s biggest challenge will be keeping the airport’s operations safe and secure while rebuilding the whole terminal. He said the airport is also committed to maintaining Eppley’s reliability for the traveling public — and communicating what people will face throughout construction.

“The team’s up to the challenge,” he said. “Everybody’s geared into this.”

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U.S. considers keeping some troops in Syria

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. may leave some forces in Syria to secure oil fields and make sure they don't fall into the hands of a resurgent Islamic State, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday.

The Pentagon chief said the plan was under discussion and had not yet been presented to President Donald Trump, who has said he is pulling troops out of the country and getting out of "endless wars." Trump also has repeatedly said the Islamic State has been defeated.

Esper emphasized that the proposal to leave a small number of troops in eastern Syria was intended to give the president "maneuver room" and wasn't final. "There has been a discussion about possibly doing it," Esper told a press conference in Afghanistan before heading to Saudi Arabia. "There has been no decision with regard to numbers or anything like that."

Still, the fact that such a plan was under consideration was another sign the administration was still trying to sort out its overall strategy amid fierce criticism from the president's Republican allies of his abrupt decision to pull U.S. forces back — essentially clearing the way for Turkey's military incursion into the border region to push back the American-allied Kurdish forces.

A White House official said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham raised the issue of keeping U.S. forces in eastern Syria to protect the oil fields and that Trump supported the idea. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.

Trump said Monday at the White House that he still wants to get all U.S. troops out of Syria, but "we need to secure the oil" in one part of the country while Israel and Jordan asked him to keep some forces in another part.

"Other than that, there's no reason for it, in our opinion," he said.

Esper said the main goal of leaving some troops around the oil fields would be to make sure the Islamic State doesn't gain control of the revenue they generate.

The defense secretary said that American troops around Kobani are withdrawing and that the U.S. is maintaining combat air patrol over U.S. forces in Syria as the withdrawal goes on. He said the U.S. is using overhead surveillance to try to monitor the recently negotiated cease-fire "as best we can."

While Trump has insisted he's bringing home Americans from "endless wars" in the Mideast, Esper said all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the American military will continue operations against the Islamic State.

Esper said over the weekend that the fight in Syria against the militants, once spearheaded by American-allied Syrian Kurds, will be undertaken by U.S. forces, possibly from neighboring Iraq.

But he said in a tweet Monday that the U.S. would only "temporarily reposition" troops from Syria "in the region" until they could return home.

Esper did not rule out the idea that U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. But he said those details will be worked out over time.

Trump nonetheless tweeted Sunday: "USA soldiers are not in combat or ceasefire zones. We have secured the Oil. Bringing soldiers home!"

Trump said last week that Washington had no stake in defending the Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America's partners fighting in Syria against extremists. Turkey conducted a weeklong offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish fighters before a military pause.

"We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives," Trump said during a Cabinet meeting Monday.

Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, asked about the fact that the troops were not coming home as the president claimed they would, said, "Well, they will eventually." He told "Fox News Sunday" that "the quickest way to get them out of danger was to get them into Iraq."

Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists.

Angry over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, residents of a Kurdish-dominated city pelted departing American military vehicles with potatoes Monday as they drove through. A video by the Kurdish news agency shows people in Qamishli hurling potatoes at the vehicles, shouting, "No America," and "America liar," in English.

"Like rats, America is running away," one man shouted in Arabic.

The U.S. has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries.

The U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after the Islamic State began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014. The number of American forces in Iraq has remained small because of political sensitivities in the country, after years of what some Iraqis consider U.S. occupation during the war that began in 2003.