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►  Experimental defense unit funds new tech but faces skeptics

Donald Trump’s administration is throwing its support to a Barack Obama-era effort enlisting startup companies to come up with solutions to the military’s toughest technological challenges.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis made his first visit Thursday to the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a two-year old effort that’s investing in private companies building experimental drones, new cybersecurity technology and advanced communications systems for soldiers.

Mattis said he expects the initiative, known as DIUx, will “grow in its influence and its impact” under the Republican administration. In recent weeks, his office has taken steps to secure DIUx’s place in the agency, including granting it greater authority to hire staff, negotiate contracts and promote its efforts.

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“Big admirer of what they do out there, about the way they germinate ideas, the way they harvest ideas, from one breakthrough, rapidly, to another,” Mattis said before meeting with staff and local industry leaders at DIUx’s office in Mountain View, California, the hometown of Google.

The program also has offices in Cambridge; Austin, Texas, and at the Pentagon.

But DIUx continues to face questions from Republican leaders in Congress and others who view it as a still-unproven and possibly unnecessary venture.

U.S. Representative Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees defense spending, agrees the military needs to better keep abreast of the innovation happening in the commercial sector. But he’s unconvinced DIUx is the long-term solution and won’t overlap with other advanced technology offices, like the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which dates to the 1950s and the space race.

“This question is: What is this office doing that’s different from what others are doing?” Thornberry said this month.

The proof that DIUx is working is the significant number of projects it has undertaken in a relatively short amount of time and with minimal taxpayer investment, said Col. Michael McGinley, who heads DIUx’s office in Cambridge, near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Since opening its first office in California’s Silicon Valley, DIUx has awarded $100 million in government contracts to 45 pilot projects.

The investments are modest since much of the heavy lifting has come from private investors, who have collectively pumped roughly $2 billion into the companies DIUx is working with, according to McGinley.

Most of the contracts have gone to startups and smaller firms that aren’t among the big, traditional military suppliers, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing or Raytheon. That’s a major objective of the initiative, which McGinley described as “complementary” to other military research organizations but with a distinctly different mission.

And, under the military’s traditional purchasing process, the contracts likely would have taken years longer to reach the point they’re at now, by which time the technology would have become obsolete, he added. DIUx, by drastically simplifying the bidding process, is awarding contracts within four months.

“This is changing the game in the way (the Department of Defense) operates and acquires new technology to support the warfighter,” McGinley said. “We’re not vaporware. We’re producing tangible results.”

The office, with roughly 45 civilian and military staffers, focuses on five general areas: artificial intelligence, information technology, drones and other unmanned vehicles, and space and life sciences.

Of the 45 projects being piloted, three account for about a third of all spending.

Tanium, in Emeryville, California, has been awarded $12.7 million to help the military better manage its information technology and cybersecurity operations.

Composite Engineering, in Roseville, California, in partnership with three other companies, has been given $12.6 million to develop high-speed drones.

And London-based online game developer Improbable was awarded $5.8 million for a simulation program.

Among the DIUx technologies already in use is software helping the Air Force make jet refueling more efficient, a $2.7 million contract that went to Pivotal Labs in San Francisco.

While DIUx may not be going away anytime soon, Congress has been reluctant to go all-in on in the effort.

After receiving $20 million to launch in 2016, DIUx was given just $10 million for the current budget year, which ends September 30, according to a DIUx spokeswoman.

The Trump administration has sought roughly $30 million for it next year, but a key House committee has proposed slashing that request in half.

DIUx deserves more time and resources, considering it’s made “substantial progress” after initial confusion over its mission and pushback from traditional defense contractors prompted an overhaul less than a year in, said Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization.

But Thornberry, the House Armed Services chairman, said he’ll be looking for DIUx to make more compelling arguments.

“The question is how much does this advance our capability,” he said. “What are you getting for it? That’s what we’ve got to get our arms around.”


►  Bodyguard: I saw DJ reach under Taylor Swift’s skirt

Taylor Swift’s former bodyguard testified Friday that he saw a DJ reach under her skirt a moment before a photographer snapped their picture during a meet-and-greet where the singer says the radio host groped her.

Security guard Greg Dent, who no longer works for Swift, said he was standing a few steps away but did not intervene because he generally took his cues from the pop star, and she gave him no signals during the 2013 pre-concert encounter at a Denver arena.

Seated at her legal team’s table in a federal courtroom, Swift chuckled when Dent testified that, after the photo was taken, he suspected that KYGO-FM host David Mueller would be at the bar of the arena — and another guard found him there.

Dent’s account came on the fourth day of testimony in a civil trial over dueling lawsuits between Swift and Mueller, who denies groping her and is seeking up to $3 million from the singer-songwriter, her mother and their radio liaison to compensate him for his ruined career.

Swift is countersuing for just $1 and what she calls a chance to stand up for other women.

A day earlier, Swift spent an hour on the witness stand herself defiantly recounting what she called a “despicable and horrifying and shocking” encounter.

“He stayed attached to my bare ###-cheek as I lurched away from him,” Swift testified.

“It was a definite grab. A very long grab,” she added in her testimony.

Swift’s testy exchange with Mueller’s attorney occasionally elicited chuckles — even from the six-woman, two-man jury. She got a laugh when she said Dent saw Mueller “lift my skirt” but someone would have had to have been underneath her to see the actual groping — “and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.”

Swift testified that after the photo was taken at the meet-and-greet session, she tried to get as far away Mueller as she could. She said she told him and his girlfriend, who was also in the photo, “thank you for coming” in a monotone voice before they left.

She also said she was stunned and did not say anything to Mueller or halt the event after he left because she did not want to disappoint several dozen people waiting in line for photos with her.

In the image, shown to jurors during opening statements but not publicly released, Mueller’s hand is behind Swift, just below her waist. Both are smiling.

Swift’s photographer, Stephanie Simbeck, testified Thursday that she knew something was wrong as she shot the photo. She testified that Swift later told her what happened, looked at a photo and pointed out Mueller as the person responsible.

The trial is scheduled to last through next Thursday but appeared Friday to be moving quickly toward closing arguments.

Dent’s testimony left Mueller’s former girlfriend, Shannon Melcher, as the only remaining potential witness who was in the room at the time.


►  NYC prepared for Trump’s return to Trump Tower

Donald Trump is expected to come home to Trump Tower for a few days starting Sunday, the first time since his inauguration, and New York City police are planning a slight security clampdown in the area around the skyscraper for the duration of his visit.

Trump first tweeted his plans Monday, saying he’d go home to the city for some meetings. He arrived at his private golf club in New Jersey a week ago Friday for a 17-day “working vacation.” The White House hasn’t divulged specifics on his New York stay.

After Trump was elected president November 8, security around Trump Tower ramped up dramatically, even including a fleet of heavy sanitation department trucks filled with sand to wall off the front of the building from any potential vehicle bomb attack. A maze of barricades and checkpoints were manned by scores of uniformed police officers under the supervision of a mobile command center.

Since taking office, the president has surprisingly returned to the city only once, on May 4, for a visit with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum. He was in town for only a few hours. His absence allowed the New York Police Department to loosen security around Trump Tower, though it can dial it back up at any time, said police department spokesman Stephen Davis.

“We’re ready,” Davis said. “We’re ready if he wants to show up tomorrow, or not at all.”

Trump Tower poses a unique security challenge because portions of it are required, by law, to be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. as a result of a zoning deal Trump cut with the city when he built the skyscraper.

The tower continues to be the scene of frequent protest marches and demonstrations, though most in recent months have been smaller than the many huge demonstrations that followed the inauguration.

Opponents of Trump’s immigration policies are planning to protest outside Trump Tower on Tuesday.

Police officials estimate the cost of securing the president while he’s in town is roughly $300,000 per day, but that could easily change depending on whom he’s with, how many people are in his entourage, where he’s headed and how long he’s planning to stay.

“The NYPD is the most expert police force on earth in terms of handling visits by an American president,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier this week. “They do an outstanding job. I think that we’re going to be ready by any measure.”

Trump’s time in New York has “been a lot less than we expected,” the Democratic mayor said. “To his credit, he kept the time here very limited and the disruption very limited. Hopefully, that will be the same this time.”


►  Childhood home of Harriet Beecher Stowe for sale on eBay

The birthplace of abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was disassembled and stored in trailers 20 years ago, has been put up for sale on eBay.

The move is the latest in the unusual history of preacher Lyman Beecher’s Litchfield house, which was built in 1811, served as the childhood home for his 11 children and was later a sanitarium and then a dormitory for a private school.

It was sold by the Forman School for $1 and deconstructed in 1997 by a buyer who planned to move it and turn it into a museum about the early life of the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author. But those plans never came to fruition.

The remains of the house, which have been stored in four storage trailers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, were acquired two years ago by a Woodbury antiques dealer, Art Pappas, who is looking for someone willing to purchase and restore the building.

Pappas said he has advertised the house with organizations that specialize in the sale of historic homes and offered it to the Smithsonian and other museums, but with no luck.

“A lot of them just don’t show any interest whatsoever, which blows my mind,” he said. “It’s the birthplace of Harriet Beecher.”

Folk singer Pete Seeger also lived in the building when it was a dormitory during the 1920s.

Pappas said he’s now turned to more mainstream internet marketplaces to list the home, including Craigslist and eBay, where a $400,000 listing expires on August 14. There were no bids for the property as of Friday. Pappas says the price is negotiable.

“The thing about eBay is it doesn’t really cost anything for the advertising at this point. We’ve spent a lot on advertising, but we’ve gotten more of a response from eBay and Craigslist,” Pappas said.

The antiques dealer says he has the original plans for the home and can put any buyer in touch with experts who can help put the “thousands of pieces” back together.

The home is listed on the state’s Register of Historic Places. But Rob Michalik, a spokesman for Connecticut’s Historic Preservation Office, said they have no plans to acquire the house.

“Our interest is in preserving the historic fabric of structures and given that this has been in storage for 20 year, we don’t know how much of that historic fabric remains,” he said.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford also has no plans to bid on the property. Executive Director Katherine Kane said that organization’s focus remains the upkeep of the museum and Hartford house where Stowe lived as an adult on a property adjacent to Mark Twain.

“When (the birthplace) was available 20 years ago both the Stowe Center and the Litchfield Historical Society evaluated the building and determined there was not much left of it from Beecher era,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t worth preserving. But it’s not on the site where it was built or in the community where it was built. So it’s lost some of its context already and then being deconstructed makes it even more difficult. It’s very sad.”

Pappas said he likely will put up another 30-day listing on eBay if he gets no offers before Monday, but eventually must decide whether it might be better to sell off pieces of the home as antiques and the rest as building material.

“It can’t stay in storage forever, it will just rot at some point,” he said.


►  DeVos say school vouchers part of tax overhaul discussions

More than a third of U.S. states have created school voucher programs that bypass thorny constitutional and political issues by turning them over to nonprofits that rely primarily on businesses to fund them. But the programs are raising questions about transparency and accountability at a time when supporters are urging that they be expanded into a federal program.

Unlike traditional school vouchers, which are directly funded by the states or in the case of Washington, D.C., the federal government, these programs don’t use any public money. Instead, those who contribute to the voucher program get tax credits. Seventeen states now have the so-called tax-credit scholarships.

Both Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have promoted the scholarships as a way to give parents greater choice in deciding where their children will go to school. Supporters are pushing the administration to launch a federal program extending the tax credit scholarships nationwide.

Asked whether such a proposal might be included as part of a tax overhaul, DeVos said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press: “It’s certainly part of our discussion.”

Depending on who you ask, the programs are either another avenue for school choice drawing on the generosity of taxpayers, or a workaround to existing bans on giving public money to religious organizations — in this case schools — with a set-up that’s ripe for abuse. It’s hard to know who’s right, given that the states purposefully limit their fingerprints on their own programs.

For Mayra Puentes of Las Vegas, it was simply a way to get her children a better education. Her son, she said, was struggling in public school, in a state that is ranked at or near the bottom of national lists on the quality of public education.

Puentes said would not have been able to afford the combined $22,000 tuition for her three children at Mountain View Christian Schools.

In Nevada, scholarships are capped annually at about $7,700 per child. They can be used at 86 private schools, not all of them accredited.

How the program works:

Nonprofits solicit contributions from businesses and others. The organizations distribute the funds to families that apply. They keep 5 percent to 10 percent of the donations for administrative costs.

Contributors can deduct the amount they gave, sometimes dollar-for-dollar, from their state tax bill.

Most states designate the vouchers programs for low-income families.

“They are this weird blend of tax policy and education policy, and in a lot of ways, they are treated more like tax policy,” said Josh Cunningham of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks the programs.

Nevada lawmakers secured a $20 million boost for the scholarships this year, after Republicans suffered a crushing blow when they couldn’t get money for their embattled Education Savings Accounts, a different type of school choice program.

Assemblyman Paul Anderson, a Republican, said government transparency laws do not and should not apply to the tax-credit scholarships because the tax component is confidential by nature, and the private sector is handling the rest. He said it was no different than a church asking its parishioners for donations — even though the state created the voucher program.

Supporters have on their side the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled that the contributed money is private funds because the cash is never touched by the state.

But government transparency watchdogs have warned that the set-up can be problematic, with abuses well-documented. In Alabama and Georgia, for example, groups advertised the programs as money-making for contributors. In Arizona, a lawmaker makes six figures annually by running a scholarship group in the same system that he has supported.

Critics say under certain circumstances, wealthy contributors could even make a profit by claiming the “charitable” deduction multiple times over at the state and federal levels.

The AAA Scholarship Foundation Inc. which runs programs in Nevada and five other states, says it doesn’t give tax advice but has, when asked, shared an IRS memo on the matter.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy say loopholes in the tax code would allow contributors to both eliminate their state tax bill and also get a charitable deduction off their federal taxes, and in some cases, also their state taxes. Carl Davis, the Washington-based think tank’s research director, likened the system to a money-laundering tax scheme because the contributions are officially considered donations — even if the scholarship money goes to for-profit schools.

“That’s not charity. That’s just helping facilitate the movement of funds. These so-called donors are really like middlemen,” Davis said. “They’re not making a financial sacrifice.”

The research firm estimates that states give away $1 billion annually in tax credits for these voucher programs. Aside from closing the loophole, states could also rein it in by requiring contributors to show their federal tax return to prove that they aren’t “double-dipping,” Davis said.

EdChoice, a leading school choice advocacy group, defends the tax-credit program, saying it’s accountable to parents who can choose to take their kids elsewhere if they don’t like a school, even if there are, like in all government programs, some cases of abuse.

Acknowledging that there are things to address, EdChoice’s policy director Jason Bedrick says his team has advised scholarship groups not to mischaracterize the system as a “get rich quick” scheme.

But he’s not apologetic about the tax loophole, saying it’s no different compared to tax credits for other charitable causes that in some states, though very rarely, is also a dollar-for-dollar contribution. And if there is tax code reform to address double-dipping, it should apply uniformly to all donor tax credits — not just for a highly political issue like vouchers.

“Some people might not like that, but they’re acting within the letter of the law. I see no problem with that,” Bedrick said. “Nobody’s going to go to jail for this.”


►  Frat adviser faces hearing in Penn State pledge death case

A judge wants an adviser to a Penn State fraternity whose members are charged in a pledge’s death to explain why he hasn’t responded to efforts to get him to testify.

At Friday’s preliminary hearing for the frat brothers, District Judge Allen Sinclair scheduled an August 30 contempt hearing for Tim Bream, the school’s head athletic trainer who lived in the Beta Theta Pi house.

Defense attorneys want Bream to testify about what he knew about the alcohol-fueled event on February 2 that led to the death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza, of Lebanon, New Jersey.

The hearing for 16 former fraternity brothers will determine if there’s enough evidence to send the case to trial.

Bream told The Associated Press on Friday that he wouldn’t be commenting to the media on the advice of his lawyer.

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