A1 A1
Trump's rumored pullout from Open Skies Treaty would idle Offutt jets

The Trump administration is believed to be preparing to pull out of the 34-nation Open Skies Treaty, a plan that would idle two Offutt-based OC-135B reconnaissance jets and their crews.

The treaty, proposed by President George H.W. Bush following the Cold War, allows member nations to fly supervised photo-reconnaissance flights over one another’s countries. This week, the U.S. and Germany are partnering on an Open Skies mission over Russia.

The planes are crewed and maintained at Offutt by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, which is part of the 55th Wing. Several dozen Offutt airmen are involved in the program.

The Trump administration hasn’t made public comments regarding withdrawal from the treaty, but congressional sources say there are strong indications the administration wants to get out.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.

Some congressional leaders, mostly Democrats, are trying to head off the effort.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned against taking such a “reckless action” in a sharply worded letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.

“American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful to our allies’ and partners’ national security interests,” the letter said.

Two Democratic House committee chairmen and the senior Democrats on two key Senate committees jointly released a letter urging Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to leave the treaty.

“Pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, an important multilateral arms control agreement, would be yet another gift from the Trump Administration to Putin,” the letter said, describing the treaty as “a critical element of U.S. and European security.”

Members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation, all Republicans, have also questioned the move.

“As a signatory to the treaty, we get valuable access to Russian airspace and military airfields on short notice,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who once commanded the 55th Wing, in a statement. “Planned upgrades to our observation aircraft and sensors will further improve our ability to monitor military activity in Russia.”

The Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command retweeted a message from Bacon in support of the treaty.

Congressional Democrats, and some Republicans, fear Trump would withdraw unilaterally and without consulting Congress, as he did when he pulled out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Missile Treaty with the Russians earlier this year.

A source with inside knowledge of the Open Skies program told The World-Herald that Trump has signed a memo drafted in part by his former national security adviser, John Bolton, directing the United States to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty by Oct. 26.

Bolton is one of several Russia hawks who have called for the U.S. to leave the treaty, arguing that Russia gets more useful information from the photographic overflights than the U.S. does.

Tim Morrison, a Bolton ally recently named the National Security Council’s top adviser on Russia, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., are both foes of the treaty.

Opponents argue that the treaty benefits Russia more than the United States because the imagery obtained by the “sensors,” or cameras on board the planes, isn’t as strong as the imagery from U.S. spy satellites. They also say Russia has failed to comply with the treaty by placing restrictions on certain flights. The U.S. has countered by imposing tit-for-tat restrictions of its own.

“The president should withdraw from the Open Skies treaty and redeploy the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon wastes on the flights and equipment to increase U.S. combat power,” Cotton said Tuesday on Twitter.

The program’s boosters say the program promotes cooperation between Russia and the United States and is one of the few remaining areas where the two sides work together. They also say the imagery is useful for U.S. allies who don’t have access to spy satellites.

“U.S. treaty flights over Ukraine and western Russia have yielded valuable data, easily shared between allies,” Kingston Reif, director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, told The World-Herald in an email. “The flights strengthen ties between the United States and its allies and reassure non-NATO members on Russia’s periphery.”

The two U.S. Open Skies planes were built in 1961 and have been prone to breakdowns. In a letter to Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer last year, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the planes completed only 64% of their flights in 2017. (Flights in 2018 were canceled because of a diplomatic row between Russia and its neighbor, the Republic of Georgia, but resumed in early 2019.)

In one case, the pilot of a March 2016 flight out of Khabarovsk, Russia, declared an emergency after a generator failure was compounded by a fire in the pressurization system that filled the cabin with smoke. The following year, a flight was cut short after the landing gear failed to retract.

Mattis supported an effort by Nebraska’s congressional delegation last year to purchase two new Open Skies planes. Fischer and Bacon, who serve on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, respectively, and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, fought off an attempt by the Russia hawks to kill funding. They ultimately secured $146 million in the 2019 budget to buy one of the two new planes.

“I have advocated for the full utilization of our rights under the agreement by procuring aircraft that can properly and fully execute this mission,” Fischer said in a statement. “I will continue advocating to give the airmen flying these missions the full support they need.”

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank focused on national security, acknowledged that Russia isn’t fully complying with the treaty. But he said the U.S. should counter noncompliance with “strong diplomacy,” not withdrawal.

“Trashing this treaty makes no sense on national security grounds. It helps stabilize an unsettled region,” Krepon said in an email. “The biggest beneficiary of leaving will be Russia. The two biggest losers will be the United States and Ukraine.”

Fortenberry said the treaty is about trust.

”The Open Skies Treaty is one of the last remaining points of contact between the United States and the Russian Federation,” he said, “in order to deter the unthinkable.”

Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years

U.S. moves Islamic state prisoners as Turkey invades

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the U.S. has moved some Islamic State prisoners amid fears some could escape custody as Turkey invades northeast Syria.

Turkey is attacking the U.S. backed Syrian Defense Forces, a Kurdish force that battled the Islamic State alongside American troops and now is responsible for guarding thousands of detained militants.

But guarding those prisoners is now expected to be less of a priority for the Kurdish forces as they rush to defend their territory against the invading Turkish military.

Trump told reporters at the White House that some of the "most dangerous" had been moved, but he did not say how many or where they had been taken.

"We're putting them in different locations where it's secure," he said.

In March, Kurdish and U.S. forces cleared the last members of the Islamic State from what was left of their self-declared caliphate, which once sprawled across a large part of Iraq and Syria.

U.S. officials said operations against remaining members of the Islamic State are on hold following the invasion Wednesday by Turkey, which sees the Kurds as a threat and is trying to create a buffer zone between the territory held by the SDF and the Syrian border.

Kurdish forces hold thousands of Islamic State fighters in detention centers, and U.S. officials said that some Kurds left the prisons to join the fight but did not flee in large numbers. Officials said a small number of high-profile Islamic State detainees are being relocated, but thousands of others remain in custody, and there are no immediate concerns the Kurds will completely abandon the facilities.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said U.S. forces are not out doing patrols looking for Islamic State fighters because their Kurdish partners are more focused on the Turkish fight.

About 30 to 50 U.S. troops were moved out of the way from two outposts in the border region. There are a number of U.S. forces in other bases just outside the so-called safe zone as well as in Manbij and other locations around the country. They have not been moved but are mainly staying in place to avoid attacks.

There are about 2,500 Islamic State foreign fighters being detained in Syria, along with about 10,000 fighters from Syria and Iraq.

Also Wednesday, more than 50 Democratic House members issued an open letter to Trump saying his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria in advance of the Turkish military operation puts U.S. allies in danger, jeopardizes U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region and will cause "current and future allies to question the reliability of the U.S. as a partner."

Signers of the letter include a wide spectrum of political views within the party, from the left, to moderates, combat veterans such as Jason Crow of Colorado and former CIA officers Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who won in a district Trump carried in D 2016.

The letter came as Republican lawmakers, who have been widely critical of Trump's action, chastised Democrats for not speaking out.

6 takeaways from Nebraska's high school test scores and performance report

Wednesday was report-card day for Nebraska public schools.

The Nebraska Department of Education released test scores and performance ratings for more than 1,100 schools and 244 districts.

After a glimpse at the data, here are six takeaways:

Test scores didn’t move much

The percentage of all students scoring proficiently in English language arts was up 1 percentage point. Same for math. Proficiency in both subjects was 52% — that means just more than half of all students mastered the academic standards in each subject area.

Science proficiency dipped from 68% to 66%.

Students were tested last school year using the Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt has a couple of ideas on the static math and English proficiency.

“I do think we’ve set an extremely high bar, and it can be harder to move it up,” he said.

Poverty, meantime, has crept up statewide over the past decade and grown much faster in some communities, he said.

“Generally we’re seeing increases in poverty rates, increases in diversity and other challenges in our student populations,” he said. “So we’re fighting two trends, so for us to stay stable in results means they’re working pretty hard to keep that track going there, when the trend of demographics is kind of working in the opposite way.”

He said the science dip could reflect local districts transitioning to new science standards adopted in 2017.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.

Most schools across the state are ‘Great’ or ‘Good’

The Education Department rates districts as Excellent, Great, Good or Needs Improvement.

Three-quarters of schools were rated either Great or Good, same as last year.

Twelve percent were Excellent; 13% were Needs Improvement.

Three metro Omaha districts boosted their ratings

This year, three districts, all at the western edge of the metro area, boosted their marks.

Bennington Public Schools and Gretna Public Schools rose from Great to Excellent; Douglas County West Community Schools rose from Good to Great.

Elkhorn Public Schools stayed Excellent.

Retaining the Great label were the Millard, Papillion-La Vista, Westside and Springfield Platteview districts.

The Ralston and Bellevue districts were rated Good.

Omaha Public Schools remained a Needs Improvement district.

Blomstedt said the ratings, while fairly stable, could see more change in the future.

“Over time we’re hoping to transition to more of a growth-based model,” he said.

Such an accountability system would reward schools that advance students academically more than one grade level in a year, he said.

Ups and downs in Omaha Public Schools

Some OPS schools went up, others down. For example, Standing Bear went from Good to Excellent. Buffett Middle went from Great to Needs Improvement.

Here’s how OPS high schools fared:

Bryan: Needs Improvement* (The asterisk is important. Although OPS had 45 schools rated as Needs Improvement, nine of those, including Bryan, could still get a better rating in November. State officials will be reviewing whether those schools met certain requirements beyond test scores, a sort of best-practices review.)

Burke: Good (dropped from Great)

Central: Good (stayed the same)

North: Good (improved from Needs Improvement)

Northwest: Needs Improvement (stayed the same)

South: Needs Improvement (stayed the same)

Metro district ratings track with poverty rates

The state’s accountability system is far friendlier to districts than the junked No Child Left Behind system.

However, it shares a feature of that system: The schools that get labeled low-performing appear to be the ones with high poverty.

State officials tried to design Nebraska’s system — Accountability for a Quality Education System Today and Tomorrow — so it wasn’t based entirely on test scores. It can take into account more subjective measures such as whether a school has community partnerships; engages parents; and maintains a safe, clean environment.

But it still gives the greatest weight to test scores. And test scores reliably align with poverty rates.

OPS, with 72% of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch and lower proficiency levels, received the Needs Improvement label. With their more moderate poverty rates, Ralston, 55%, and Bellevue, 36%, rated Good.

The three Excellent-rated metro districts — Elkhorn, Gretna and Bennington — have poverty rates of 8%, 9% and 10%, respectively.

The results raise questions about whether Nebraska’s accountability system measures economics or academics.

Federal push to review student groups kicked in

To comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the state identified 364 schools for performance concerns in various student subgroups.

The so-called Targeted Support and Improvement schools will be receiving some extra state support, though apparently not any money.

The designation stems from an examination of performance of 10 subgroups: black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American/Alaskan, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, two or more races, Asian, white, English learners, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students.

Here’s a link to all of the results.

World-Herald staff writer Emily Nitcher contributed to this report.

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2018 ACT scores

Downtown's forgotten park to get skating rink, botanical garden, winter market and more

Heartland of America Park may be downtown Omaha’s most forgotten park.

Despite its picturesque fountains and pristine views of the skyline, it’s hard to reach and its trail often attracts more goose poop than visitors.

But the City of Omaha and its army of private donors envision a bolder future for the 25-acre park, which sits between the Conagra campus and the Missouri River, east of Eighth and Douglas Streets.

Construction begins this fall to create a new and better destination, a place for people to walk, run, bike, skate, shop, eat or relax. Work on the project will carry into 2023, with finishing touches in 2024.


Here is an early rendering of possible features in the new Heartland of America Park. Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority officials say the layout could change a bit during design and construction.

The new plan is part of nearly $300 million in renovations of three downtown parks, including the Gene Leahy Mall and Lewis and Clark Landing. The riverfront project is largely privately funded, with the city providing $50 million in bonds and about $3 million a year for maintenance.

Early renderings highlight a swath of new open spaces to host everything from festivals and concerts to family reunions.

Some of the new green space comes from filling in the northernmost part of Heartland of America Park’s manmade lake and building a causeway over the filled-in lake bed, Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority officials say.


This rendering shows part of Heartland of America Park’s lake filled in for green space.

Plans envision the Farnam Promenade, a walkway from Eighth Street east that will be flanked by space for working out and picnicking and a smooth concrete ribbon-shaped rink for seasonal in-line skating and ice skating.

The waterfall at the lake’s northwestern edge will be removed, replaced by, among other things, the skating ribbon. The old bathrooms and concrete structure will be ripped out, too. New bathrooms will be built elsewhere.

Food trucks will have a place to park along Douglas Street, which will be extended east through part of the park so drivers can more easily reach Lewis and Clark Landing. The design also calls for a tiered botanical garden and a winter market, a seasonal version of the City Market in Kansas City.

Wednesday’s damp, 60-degree weather thinned out the afternoon crowd around the lake. But downtown resident Ed Urbanowicz, 62, ignored the rain for his near-daily walk on the trail.

He said he would miss having the larger loop around the lake, and he isn’t excited about three years of park construction. But he said the new plans sound exciting, and he hopes it draws more people downtown.

“It’s another attraction for Omaha,” he said.

Better connecting Heartland of America Park with Gene Leahy Mall and Lewis and Clark Landing is a major goal of the renovations.

Preliminary plans show that visitors will be able to walk at street level from the W. Dale Clark Library through the Gene Leahy Mall and Heartland of America Park to the Missouri River’s edge, with help from a revamped pedestrian bridge over the rail lines east of Heartland of America Park.

With both parks being raised to street level, the new layout evokes images of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Omaha’s version will show off the First National Bank Tower and downtown buildings, instead of George Washington’s monument.


This rendering shows potential recreation space along the new Heartland of America Park in downtown Omaha.

Preliminary work has already begun. Statues in the park have been moved to central Omaha’s Memorial Park. The part of the park on the north side of Conagra’s gates will close for construction in November or December.

The Conagra side of the lake will remain open during construction, said Katie Bassett, vice president of parks for MECA, the organization the city has hired to oversee the renovation and eventually the maintenance of the parks.

Omaha Parks and Recreation will turn off the fountains as usual when cold weather arrives this fall but expects to turn them back on in the spring, while much of the rest of the park is rebuilt.

Officials say they expect to close no streets for construction, because Heartland of America Park is fairly isolated. The city closed a section of Eighth Street and others to work on Gene Leahy Mall.

The city plans to reopen Eighth Street to southbound traffic late this year and to two-way traffic once the riverfront work is done.

Major construction in the Gene Leahy Mall is expected to wrap up in late 2021, with work on additional features stretching into 2024.

MECA expects to begin renovations of Lewis and Clark Landing in late summer to early fall of 2020. Lewis and Clark Landing is the park at the foot of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River.

Photos: Omaha's Gene Leahy Mall through the years