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Secret Service Director: White House Intrusion ‘Unacceptable’

Secret Service Director: White House Intrusion ‘Unacceptable’

ABC News(WASHINGTON) — Facing an outraged Congressional committee, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson admitted the agency’s security plan “was not properly executed,” calling the White House intrusion that took place on Sept. 19 “unacceptable.”

“I take full responsibility,” Pierson said. “It will never happen again.”

In a startling security lapse earlier this month, 42-year-old Omar Gonzalez, armed with a 3 ½ inch serrated knife, scaled the north fence at the White House, stormed through the unlocked North Portico door, and barreled past an agent into the East Room just minutes after the first family had departed the White House.

Before he scaled the fence, Pierson revealed that two agents recognized and observed Gonzalez, who was caught with a hatchet tucked in his waistband and several firearms stashed in his car near the White House earlier this summer, but did not make contact with him or report that he was present.

“We all are outraged within the Secret Service of how this came to pass,” Pierson said. “It’s obvious that mistakes were made.”

“Protecting the White House complex is a challenge in any environment,” she added. “We are never satisfied by the status quo and we are constantly reviewing our security protocols.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa called lawmakers back to Capitol Hill to convene the rare recess hearing, saying the failure “has tested the trust of the American people in the Secret Service” to protect the president.

“Common sense tells us that there were a series of security failures, not an instance of praiseworthy restraint. Inexplicably, Omar Gonzalez breached at least five rings of security on September 19th,” Issa, R-Calif., said. “The White House is supposed to be one of America’s most secure facilities, and in fact, one of the world’s most secure facilities. So how on earth did it happen?”

Pierson — brought in just 18 months ago to clean up the scandal-plagued agency — now faces a scandal of her own.

She said 16 people have been apprehended for scaling the fence over the past five years, including six this year.

“Our goal today is also clear: to determine how this happened and make sure it does not happen again,” said Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “I hate to even imagine what could have happened if Gonzalez had been carrying a gun instead of a knife when he burst inside the White House. That possibility is extremely unsettling.”

A “crash box” alarm that should have alerted agents of an intruder had been muted at the behest of the chief usher’s office, the Washington Post reported Monday, and the agent guarding the door had no time to lock it before Gonzalez entered.

While the incident was the primary focus of the hearing, lawmakers also demanded answers about an incident the next day when an unauthorized vehicle was cleared into the White House compound, as well as a 2011 incident when a man fired several rounds at the White House while some of the president’s family was inside.

Pierson reportedly requested that much of the hearing take place behind closed doors, calling a public discussion of Secret Service practices “beyond reckless.” Lawmakers claimed the public deserves to know what happened, but agreed to hold a classified session immediately following Tuesday’s open hearing.

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Six Secret Service Safeguards Breached by White House Intruder

Six Secret Service Safeguards Breached by White House Intruder

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — There were at least six safeguards that failed when a man jumped the fence and got deeper into the White House than anyone before.

Secret Service Director Julia Pierson appeared Tuesday before a House Committee over the biggest breach in security since she took over the post in March last year.

Though the agency’s spokesperson initially said that former veteran Omar Gonzalez was apprehended just inside the North Portico doors during the Sept. 19 incident, that has now been proven false.

Further details first reported by The Washington Post make it clear that there were a half dozen steps that were not taken by the Secret Service during the close call, just minutes after the Obamas had left the building.

“How on earth did it happen?” House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa said in his opening statements at Pierson’s hearing Tuesday morning.

Here’s a step-by-step look at what happened:

The Fence and Plainclothes Officers

The first breach that occurred came when a team of plainclothes Secret Service agents circulating the perimeter of the White House fence did not spot Gonzalez as he climbed over. That team is in place as an early warning intended to alert the rest of the Secret Service team.

Crash Boxes and Front Door

When any officer spots an intruder — which should have been the plainclothes team — agents should hit the red button in the “crash boxes” posted throughout the White House and grounds. That alarm would lock the door to the White House, but since it never went off, the doors were left unlocked.

Booth Agent

If the plainsclothes agents failed to spot someone climbing the fence, there is an officer stationed in a guard booth on the North Lawn.

Attack Dog

If that officer sees the intruder, but realizes that they will not be able to apprehend them before they reach the White House, the officer is supposed to send an attack dog to stop the intruder.

According to The Washington Post, people familiar with the incident said that the officer may not have felt that they could release the attack dog because there were other Secret Service officers pursuing Gonzalez by foot, and the officer may have feared that the dog would attack the Secret Service agents rather than the intruder.

SWAT Team and Extra Guard

The guard in the North Lawn booth is also trained to send a SWAT team and a guard to the front door to confront the intruder. Neither of these were sent.

Guard at the Front Desk

The final breach came when Gonzalez ran past the guard inside the North Portico door, through the entrance hallway, down a hall past the staircase that would lead him directly to the first family’s private residence and into the East Room. It was only there, in the room used for formal state dinners and national security announcements, where Gonzalez was finally taken and physically tackled by a Secret Service agent.

“The fact is the system broke down on September 19,” Issa said.

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Clay Aiken Sings Different Tune in Bid for Congress

Clay Aiken Sings Different Tune in Bid for Congress

ABC News(WASHINGTON) — More than a decade after Clay Aiken made his singing debut on the stage of American Idol, he is taking to the political stage, competing for a very different sort of title: U.S. Congressman.

Running as a Democrat in North Carolina’s 2nd District, Aiken is making the case to voters that his voice is good for more than just singing.

“What people don’t recognize is that in the months and weeks following American Idol, I worked to set up an organization for kids with disabilities, and for the last 11 years I’ve helped grow that organization from one that had programs in North Carolina to one that has programs in states across the country,” Aiken told ABC News.

In an effort to get voters to focus on him as a candidate rather than a singer, Aiken has put a stop on the singing — at least for now — as he travels across in his native North Carolina, where he faces an uphill battle as a Democrat running in a conservative district.

“I recognize that this box that people have me in is that of a singer,” Aiken said. “There’s a whole bunch more to me than just being a singer, and we’ve done a great job of explaining that to folks. By singing I put myself back in the box, and that’s not necessarily what we’re trying to do here.”

During an appearance on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert tried to get Aiken to sing the national anthem with him, but he refused. “There’s a very big difference [between] doing it in a mocking way and doing it seriously,” Aiken explained.

The Colbert Report aside, Aiken has made a few exceptions to his ban on campaign trail singing.

“There’ve been one or two times on the campaign trail, where it was organic — there was a band, and somebody else was singing — and I stepped up and sang just a little bit,” Aiken said.

Aiken said he’s running for Congress to fill what he sees as a “vacuum” of needed leadership in Washington. And in his home district, Aiken believes there is a sentiment of anger toward Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers, who was elected in 2010.

“My mom used to joke that I was gonna go…to Hollywood, and ‘go Hollywood.’ And I clearly did not, I stayed about a year and a half and came home, and I’m the same person I was before,” Aiken said.

And though Aiken said he didn’t “go Hollywood,” he believes Ellmers has gone Washington.

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Seven Questions for Secret Service Director Julia Pierson After WH Intrusion

Seven Questions for Secret Service Director Julia Pierson After WH Intrusion

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — On the heels of the Washington Post’s revelation that the armed man who scaled the White House fence earlier this month not only entered the executive mansion but bolted past a guard and into the East Room, the Secret Service has come under fire once again.

According to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, President Obama was “obviously concerned” about the Sept. 19 perimeter breach — and in a rare moment of accord, the Republican-controlled House share his concern.

Tuesday, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will grill Secret Service Director Julia Pierson about the agency’s repeated lapses. Here’s seven questions lawmakers are likely to ask:

1. Why the lack of transparency?

Monday’s revelations don’t exactly square with the agency’s original explanation, which seemed to imply that the 42-year-old fence jumper, Omar Gonzalez, had been apprehended just inside the entrance.

The day after the incident, the Secret Service released a statement saying simply, “Gonzalez failed to comply with responding Secret Service Uniformed Division Officers’ verbal commands, and was physically apprehended after entering the White House North Portico doors.”

2. Didn’t Gonzalez’s erratic history raise a red flag?

Secret Service investigators interviewed Gonzalez, an Iraq vet, at least twice before he stormed into the White House on Sept. 19.

Two months before the incident, authorities in Virginia discovered a sawed-off shotgun and a map marking the White House stashed in Gonzalez’s car. They confiscated the weapons but concluded he wasn’t a threat to the president. And about a month later, officers spotted Gonzales wandering along the south fence with a hatchet in his waistband. They determined they didn’t have enough evidence to hold him.

Gonzalez’s motives aren’t clear: Though he had armed himself with 3 ½ inch knife, he claims his only intent was to warn the president that the “atmosphere was collapsing.” Still, the fact that a man repeatedly flagged by Secret Service managed to make it so far into what was once considered most secure residence in the nation is troubling.

3. Why didn’t agents fire?

The Secret Service Uniformed Division supposedly maintains “five rings” of protection to create a secure perimeter around the executive mansion. But it was a counterassault agent patrolling the interior — an agent who was never supposed to come face-to-face with a would-be fence jumper — who eventually subdued Gonzalez.

At the North Gate, a plainclothes surveillance team posted outside the gate failed to notice Gonzalez clambering over the eight-foot fence.

Then, in quick succession, a guard booth officer, SWAT team, and K-9 unit all failed to respond.

They allowed Gonzales to dart into the White House, which had been vacated by the first family just minutes before.

4. Why didn’t they release the dogs?

The K-9 unit, a team of Belgian Malinois dogs trained to attack intruders, was also not deployed.

Sources say officers were afraid the dogs would attack the officers pursuing Gonzalez instead of the intruder himself.

5. Why wasn’t the door secured?
Gonzales didn’t have to force the front door or pick the lock. It wasn’t locked.

Secret Service agents generally wait for notice of an intruder to lock the front door — but the officer guarding the entrance on Sept. 19 wasn’t aware of a fence jumper until he was almost upon her.

Gonzales dashed past her and ran past the entrance to the first family’s private quarters and into the ceremonial East Room on the first floor.

6. Why is the Secret Service taking direction from hospitality staff?
According to the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, someone had apparently muted a “crash box” alarm designed to alert officers of intruders — at the behest of the usher’s office.

Apparently, the alarm frequently went off without provocation, disturbing the staff. Even so, some lawmakers are chiding the agency for disabling the crash box “to appease superficial concerns of White House ushers.”

7. How did the President actually react?
In public, President Obama appeared calm, saying that the Secret Service “does a great job.” But previous security breaches have reportedly left the president and first lady fuming.

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Ted Cruz Says He’s Made No Decision About 2016

Ted Cruz Says He’s Made No Decision About 2016

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Texas Senator Ted Cruz says that he had not made a decision to seek the 2016 GOP presidential nomination despite an article that says otherwise.

A person identified as a “Cruz adviser” told the National Journal that “At this point it’s 90/10 he’s in. And honestly, 90 is lowballing it.”

The same article said the freshman senator would campaign for president on a strong foreign policy platform.

However, Cruz took to Facebook Monday to post the following denial:

“Contrary to media reports this morning, Heidi and I have not made any decisions about political plans past the mid-term elections. Clearly we have an overzealous supporter out there making freelance comments, but to be clear, no decision has been made. Whoever this ‘anonymous advisor’ was, he or she had no authority to speak, and doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Cruz is just one of numerous Republicans who have been mentioned as possible contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination. Others include Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

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White House Fence Jumper Got Further Than Previously Thought, Sources Say

White House Fence Jumper Got Further Than Previously Thought, Sources Say

DesignforU/iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The man who broke into the White House two weeks ago was able to make his way farther into the White House than previously believed.

A law enforcement official confirmed to ABC News on Monday that Omar Gonzalez, 42, made his way through the entrance hall and cross hall — passing a stairwell to the president’s quarters — before being tackled in the East Room, the room where President Obama and so many other presidents have made some of their most important announcements.

The development calls into question the narrative originally released by the Secret Service, which suggested Gonzalez, of Texas, had been taken into custody near the front doors of the White House.

News of how far Gonzalez breached the White House was first reported on Monday by the Washington Post.

“Gonzalez failed to comply with responding Secret Service Uniformed Division Officers’ verbal commands, and was physically apprehended after entering the White House North Portico doors,” the Secret Service said in a statement on Sept. 20.

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Kerry Congratulates New Afghan President, ‘Chief Executive Officer’

Kerry Congratulates New Afghan President, ‘Chief Executive Officer’

Credit: US Department of State(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State John Kerry praised the leaders of Afghanistan after new president Ashraf Ghani and his former election opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, took their positions on Monday.

Ghani was sworn in as president and Abdullah took on a role Kerry called “chief executive officer.” Kerry called both men “patriots committed to the success of their country.”

Kerry congratulated the country on taking “a moment of challenge and [turning] it into a moment of real opportunity.”

While Kerry didn’t specifically mention it, a key matter under the new government will be the signing of a bilateral security agreement, allowing U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan.

“Thanks to the hard work and sacrifices of so many from around the world, in addition to the strides it has made in consolidating its democratic system, Afghanistan has made unprecedented gains in the life expectancy, health and education of its people — particularly women and girls,” Kerry noted.

Calling the swearing-in “a beginning, not an ending,” Kerry spoke glowingly of the possibility of a “sovereign, unified and democratic Afghanistan.”

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CEO Indicted for Spyware App That Records Calls, Nearby Conversations

CEO Indicted for Spyware App That Records Calls, Nearby Conversations

scyther5/iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — For the first time, criminal charges have been brought against a suspect for allegedly advertising and selling spyware for the iPhone, Android and Blackberry – software that’s purportedly capable of intercepting phone calls, text messages and emails, and even eavesdropping on offline conversations happening within a few yards of the smartphone carrier.

The Department of Justice announced Monday the indictment of Pakistani national Hammad Akbar, CEO of InvoCode Pvt Ltd, the U.K.-based company that sells StealthGenie software online, in part marketing it to suspicious spouses and lovers. Akbar was arrested in Los Angeles on Saturday.

“This application allegedly equips potential stalkers and criminals with a means to invade an individual’s confidential communications,” FBI Assistant Director in Charge Andrew McCabe said in a DOJ release. “They do this not by breaking into their homes or offices, but by physically installing spyware on unwitting victim’s phones and illegally tracking an individual’s every move. As technology continues to evolve, the FBI will investigate and bring to justice those who use illegal means to monitor and track individuals without their knowledge.”

The FBI says a potential user would need to be alone with a target device for “only a few minutes” to install the software and then could monitor the phone without physical contact again – using software that is “undetectable by most users and was advertised as being untraceable.”

In addition to monitoring basically all communications on the target smartphone, the StealthGenie user could “call the phone and activate it any time to monitor all surrounding conversations within a 15-foot radius,” the FBI said.

The DOJ release said that part of StealthGenie’s marketing plan was to sell to customers who suspect their significant others are cheating on them.

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Why Mitt Romney, Barbra Streisand and Karl Rove Keep Emailing You

Why Mitt Romney, Barbra Streisand and Karl Rove Keep Emailing You

ABC/Donna Svennevik(NEW YORK) — You’ve been getting a lot of emails, so I’ll make this quick:

These past few days Mitt Romney has been flooding inboxes with emails that begin exactly like the sentence above. The chances you’ve received an email from Mitt Romney are high if you have subscribed to any Republican political e-mail list.

So why has the former GOP presidential nominee been personally reaching out?

The inbox barrage is all part of an effort to boost campaign, party and committee donations before Tuesday’s deadline. Sept. 30 marks the Federal Election Committee’s final quarter report – the fundraising cutoff for campaigns to tout their fundraising prowess before the November election.

Mitt Romney has sent three emails out so far for the National Republican Congressional Committee. And Daniel Scarpinato, the group’s national press secretary, told ABC News that Romney has been effective in raising money, raking in more contributions than anyone else emailing the same list.

“It’s no surprise he’s our number-one sender because a lot of Americans want to see him as president,” Scarpinato said.

But Romney isn’t the only one sending email.

A big contributor to Democratic candidates, actress and singer Barbra Streisand, recently hit up inboxes to support New Hampshire incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The subject line read, “I’m asking for a favor.”

The message began:

“Hi, Friends – It’s me, Barbra. I was struck by something and had to write: My friend Jeanne Shaheen, the first woman to be elected both as a governor and U.S. senator, is facing attacks from right-wing men desperate to undo 30 years of social progress.”

Former George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove expressed urgency in an email sent on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — “TIGHT AS A TICK.” (Note the all-caps).

“President Obama’s approval ratings keep dropping, no reliable poll shows battleground Senate Democrats with over 50% support, and GOP voters are excited to cast their ballots in 41 days,” Rove wrote. “The midterm environment is toxic for Democrats, yet there’s a chance Republicans may not take the Senate.”

And then there was singer Carole King’s email for New York candidate Domenic Recchia’s campaign, which was much more personal. The New York native recalled trips to Staten Island where she played on the swings, wolfed down hot dogs, and felt the strong sense of community.

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Supreme Court Reinstates Early Voting Restrictions in Ohio

Supreme Court Reinstates Early Voting Restrictions in Ohio

zimmytws/iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — In a tight split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court voted on Monday to allow early vote restrictions to go into effect in Ohio.According to a court order, the court, by a vote of 5-4, granted a request from …

Three Times Obama Administration Was Warned About ISIS Threat

Three Times Obama Administration Was Warned About ISIS Threat

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — President Obama has suggested that the U.S. intelligence community underestimated ISIS, but there were at least three instances in which U.S. intelligence officials issued a public warning about the growing strength of the militant Islamic terror group.

In his 60 Minutes interview Sunday, Obama seemed to put the blame on the intelligence community, saying, “I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”

At the White House daily briefing Monday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest cast the net quite a bit wider.

“Everybody was surprised to see the rapid advance that ISIL was able to make from Syria across the Iraqi border,” said Earnest. “To be able to take over such large swaths of territory in Iraq did come as a surprise.”

But for nearly a year, senior officials in the U.S. government have been warning about the alarming rise of ISIS, or ISIL as the terrorist group is also known, and the inability of the Iraqi government to confront the threat.

Here are three examples:

BRETT MCGURK
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran
Nov. 14, 2013

On Nov. 14, 2013, State Department official Brett McGurk testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee extensively about the growing threat of ISIL/ISIS.

“We face a real problem,” McGurk said. “There is no question that ISIL is growing roots in Syria and in Iraq.”

McGurk was quite specific about the extent of the threat. He cited the group’s alarming campaign of suicide bombings, its growing financial resources and its expanding safe haven in Syria.

“We have seen upwards of 40 suicide bombers per month targeting playgrounds, mosques, and markets, in addition to government sites from Basra to Baghdad to Erbil,” he said.

He was also specific about the inability of the Iraqi government to deal with it.

“AQ/ISIL has benefited from a permissive operating environment due to inherent weaknesses of Iraqi security forces, poor operational tactics, and popular grievances, which remain unaddressed, among the population in Anbar and Nineva provinces,” McGurk said.

ROBERT BEECROFT
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
Jan. 23, 2014

In January, ISIS/ISIL gave a strong indication of just how much of a threat they posed when the group took over the Iraqi city of Fallujah and part of Ramadi. At that point, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert Beecroft said it could get a whole lot worse.

“It’s a very precarious situation,” Beercroft told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz. “And a misstep anywhere could set off a larger conflict in the country.”

LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN
U.S. Army Director, Defense Intelligence Agency
Feb. 11, 2014

On Feb. 11, 2014, the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, warned the group would likely attempt to take over even more territory.

“ISIL probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria,” Flynn told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

That’s a prediction, unfortunately, that proved to be right on target.

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‘College Was a Long Time Ago’ for Rand Paul and Laughing Gas Tale

‘College Was a Long Time Ago’ for Rand Paul and Laughing Gas Tale

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — Rand Paul has never been quiet when it comes to voicing his disapproval of America’s war on drugs.

And a new profile in the New Yorker, which traced the Republican’s life from childhood to potential 2016 presidential contender, details a time when the Kentucky senator reportedly engaged in a little drug use of his own.

One of Paul’s classmates at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, told the New Yorker that he once obtained tanks of nitrous oxide from a friend studying dentistry. Another colleague added that the three of them then attached a scuba mask directly to the tank and got high on laughing gas.

“College was a long time ago,” Paul, 51, said in a statement to the New Yorker without clarifying whether the incident actually happened. “The high jinks reported by others make my college experience sound way more adventuresome than it actually was.”

The New Yorker also addressed a GQ.com story that described Paul’s time in a Baylor secret society, the NoZe Brotherhood, when Paul and a friend pretended to kidnap a woman from her apartment, told her to smoke pot and made her pray to “Aqua Buddha” in a creek. Paul’s friends made light of the alleged event to the New Yorker; one said that the Aqua Buddha was an inside joke on the Baylor swim team and no drugs were involved that night.

While Paul, who’s an ophthalmologist, acknowledges that college was a while ago and drugs are bad for you, he believes the punishment for using them is much worse.

“I think that drugs are a scourge and are bad for young people, but a lifetime in prison as punishment is not the answer,” Paul said in a USA Today op-ed article. “I believe in redemption and forgiveness for the 19-year-old kid who made a mistake by purchasing drugs. I think that young people deserve a second chance.”

The potential presidential candidate for 2016 has lately been making increased efforts to reach out to young voters and minority communities.

Paul introduced a piece of legislation called the REDEEM Act alongside Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., in July, which would overhaul the criminal justice system and help low-level offenders by restoring their voting rights and having their nonviolent criminal records expunged so they can get jobs.

Weeks later, Paul announced the RESET Act, which would reclassify low-level drug possession offenses to misdemeanors. It would also eliminate differences in sentencing for offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine, because penalties for crack cocaine are more severe than those for the powder version.

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Did Intelligence Community Underestimate ISIS Risk in Iraq?

Did Intelligence Community Underestimate ISIS Risk in Iraq?

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Did the White House miss the memo on ISIS, or did the intelligence community fail to assess the risk?

In an interview Sunday on CBS’ 60 Minutes, President Obama said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and his team “underestimated” the risk that ISIS posed in Iraq and didn’t warn that the Iraq army, marred by sectarian division, would crumble.

“Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Obama said.

The president also said it’s “absolutely true” that the U.S. overestimated the commitment and strength of the Iraqi army in taking on the militant group.

At Monday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest cast the net a bit wider, saying the U.S. didn’t see it coming.

“Nobody predicted the speed and pace with which ISIL would advance across the Syrian border with Iraq,” Earnest said, using one of several acronyms for the militant group.

But members of the administration did voice concerns. State Department official Brett McGurk was asked at a House hearing last November whether the administration was underestimating the threat.

“I don’t want to get into whether it was underestimated. I’m really focusing my job on where we are now and we face a real problem,” McGurk said at the time.

Despite Obama’s remarks, Earnest denied Monday that the White House is at odds with the intelligence community.

“The president has confidence in Director Clapper and the president has confidence in the intelligence professionals who are responsible for providing him advice and intelligence about what’s happening on the ground,” Earnest said.

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Gay Marriage and Six Other Big Issues on Supreme Court Agenda

Gay Marriage and Six Other Big Issues on Supreme Court Agenda

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Hovering over the Supreme Court’s 2014 docket of interesting cases is the blockbuster issue of gay marriage. The justices will meet behind closed doors Monday to discuss whether to hear one or more cases challenging marriage bans in five states.

“This set of issues is the greatest civil rights issue of our time,” says former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who is representing one set of challengers.

Since the Supreme Court’s historic gay marriage rulings in 2013, three appellate courts have struck bans in five states.

In an unusual circumstance, Katyal — and the other challengers — have asked the Supreme Court to step in despite having won in the lower court.

Here’s the sentiment according to Katyal: “Let us have our shot in court, and win on a national level.”

The court could decide not to get involved at all, but Irv Gornstein, executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown Law, thinks it is not a question of “if,” but “when.” At a recent event he said that the court might take a few weeks to discuss which cases to take but that the justices will eventually grant cert and “give a definitive answer this term.”

Overshadowed by the gay marriage debate are the actual cases which the court will begin considering when oral arguments begin on Oct. 6. Here’s a rundown of some of the other cases:

1. FREE SPEECH IN THE AGE OF FACEBOOK

After his wife left him, Anthony D. Elonis took to posting violent passages on Facebook. “Did you know that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?” he posted in one. “Hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class,” he wrote in another. He was convicted under a federal threat statue. But Elonis argues he never intended to carry out a threat, and he was expressing himself at times using song lyrics that are similar to the music produced by rap star Eminem. At issue in the case is under what circumstances the government can punish speech as a threat. It’s an interesting intersection of Internet speech, rap music and the First Amendment.

2. RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN PRISON

Gregory Holt aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad pled guilty in 2005 for threatening to kidnap and harm the daughters of George W. Bush. In 2010 he was convicted of first-degree domestic battering and sentenced to life. Once in prison, Holt said he wanted to grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith. But while the Arkansas Department of Corrections allows mustaches, it forbids other facial hair. Quarter inch beards are permitted only for a diagnosed dermatological problem. Holt says the prison is violating his rights under a federal law specifically designed to protect religious exercise for prisoners. But corrections officials say the court should give deference to a policy that was crafted to keep inmates from hiding contraband and protect security.

3. HOW DID A FLORIDA FISHERMAN GET CAUGHT UP IN THE ENRON SCANDAL?

Congress acted quickly after the document-shredding scandal at Enron in 2002. It passed a law meant to stop the destruction of a “record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation. But did Congress mean to include fish? In 2007, John Yates’ boat the Miss Katie was boarded by a deputized federal agent who was concerned that some of the harvested red grouper appeared to be less than the 20 inches allowed by federal regulations. The deputy put aside a number of the fish and asked Yates to bring them ashore the next day. But according to the government, Yates instead ordered a crew member to throw some of the fish in question over board, and replace them with bigger fish. Once on dry land, the deputy was not fooled. But Yates did not just receive civil penalties. He was convicted under the post Enron law, a federal statute that can bring a maximum penalty of 20 years. Although Yates got a lesser sentence, his lawyers argue the law was intended for data storage or record-keeping devices, not red grouper thrown off the Miss Katie.

4. SEPARATION OF POWERS CASE ON THE STATUS OF JERUSALEM

This case explores a long-time conflict between Congress and the Executive with Middle East politics as the back drop. When Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky was born in Jerusalem in 2002, his American parents sought to have “Israel” listed on his passport pursuant to a law passed by Congress that allows them to do so. But State Department officials refused. The law is not enforced by the State Department because it runs counter to its policy to take no position on one of the most contentious issues in history: The political status of Jerusalem. The Zivotofskys sued. In legal briefs, lawyers for Secretary of State John Kerry say the law “impermissibly impinges on the Executive Branch’s exclusive constitutional authority to decide whether and on what terms to recognize a foreign sovereign.” Lawyers for the Zivotofskys respond that Congress has broad power over passports and that the place-of-birth entry on the passport is designed not for any foreign policy purpose, but to identify the passport holder.

5. ALABAMA REDISTRICTING

The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Alabama Democratic Conference are challenging a 2012 redistricting plan adopted by a Republican-led legislature. They say the plan packed African Americans into existing majority-black districts and diluted their influence. Alabama’s attorney general says in part that the drafters of the plan were seeking to comply with the Voting Rights Act by keeping the majority-black districts under the new plan about the same as the ones in the previous plans. This will be the first voting rights case heard by the justices since a divided court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

6. PREGNANCY DISCRIMINATION

Peggy Young, an employee of United Parcel Service, became pregnant in 2006 and was told by her doctor not to lift anything heavier than 20 pounds for the first 20 weeks or pregnancy. Young asked her supervisor for an accommodation for her pregnancy-related lifting restriction. She was told that UPS — governed by a collective bargaining agreement — did not give light duty for pregnancy. Young sued under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) arguing that the law requires employers to provide the same accommodations it provides to non-pregnant employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work. UPS indeed offers light work accommodations to a subset of workers who are injured on the job, have a disability defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or lose their Department of Transportation certification. But UPS says it has a pregnancy-neutral policy and that Young was treated in exactly the same way the company treats all employees — pregnant or not — who are unable to perform essential functions of the job as a result of an off-the-job injury or condition.

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Boehner Believes US Ground Forces May Be Needed to Defeat ISIS

Boehner Believes US Ground Forces May Be Needed to Defeat ISIS

ABC/Martin H. Simon(WASHINGTON) — While a U.S.-led coalition continues to strike militants in Iraq and Syria, House Speaker John Boehner said President Obama’s current strategy is insufficient to eliminate the threat posed by ISIS.

“If the goal is to destroy ISIS, as the president says it is, I don’t believe the strategy that he outlined will accomplish that,” Boehner told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview for ABC News in Portland, Maine this week. “At the end of the day, I think it’s going to take more than air strikes to drive them out of there. At some point somebody’s boots have to be on the ground.”

“American?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“Listen, the president doesn’t want to do that,” Boehner answered. “If I were the president, I probably wouldn’t have talked about what I wouldn’t do — and maybe we can get enough of those forces trained to get them on the battlefield, but somebody’s boots have to be there.”

“If no one else will step up, would you recommend putting American boots on the ground?” Stephanopoulos pressed.

“We have no choice,” Boehner warned. “These are barbarians. They intend to kill us, and if we don’t destroy them first, we’re gonna pay the price.”

If the president requested new authorization for the use of military force, Boehner pledged to call the House back into session “next week.”

“I’d be happy to,” he said. “The president has not done that. He believes he has authority under existing resolutions to do what he’s done.”

“You don’t agree?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“I think he does have the authority to do it, but the point I’m making is this is a proposal that the Congress ought to consider,” the speaker said.

Boehner predicted that the GOP would take control of the Senate, and that Republicans would also add to their majority in the House. This week, Boehner made a campaign swing for GOP candidates traditionally Democratic territory in New England.

“We can gain seats in this election, and we’ve got great prospects all over the country,” Boehner said. “I don’t think you can be a national party if you just ignore one part of the country.”

Although last year Boehner told ABC News immigration reform would be passed by the end of the current session of Congress, the speaker still contends it’s one of his highest priorities.

“We had a flood of children coming across the border, once again proving that no good immigration bill can pass until we have real border security,” he said.  “Big things in Washington take bipartisan majorities. [The] issue of immigration? Only way to do it, and frankly the right way to do it, is to do it in a broad bipartisan way.”

“And you think you can bring your party along on that?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“Absolutely,” Boehner said. “I said the day after the 2012 election it was time to do immigration reform. I meant it then and I mean it today.”

So what is Boehner’s message to President Obama about the upcoming session of Congress?

“I think the conversation’s pretty straightforward. ‘Mr President you’ve got two years left. Want to have two years like we’ve had the last four years where we just butt heads and butt heads and butt heads?’” he continued. “It’s up to us to see where the common ground is, but tax reform, a big highway bill, certainly are in the realm of doable.”

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Hundreds Gather Outside White House Protesting Against Opiate Painkillers

Hundreds Gather Outside White House Protesting Against Opiate Painkillers

Joe Ravi/iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Hundreds, perhaps thousands of protesters gathered outside the White House on Sunday, condemning President Obama and his administration for their lack of action on regulation of opiate painkillers.

Wearing t-shirts that red “Fed Up!” and chanting, protesters backed by addiction groups and anti-painkiller-abuse advocates held signs with the images of loved ones who died from heroin addictions. Many of them, protesters said, began down that path by abusing prescription painkillers.

The group called for the resignation of Margaret Hamburg, administrator of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this week.

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Bill O’Reilly and Henry Kissinger ‘Simpatico’ on Global Mercenary Force

Bill O’Reilly and Henry Kissinger ‘Simpatico’ on Global Mercenary Force

ABC/Randy Holmes(WASHINGTON) — Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supports Bill O’Reilly’s idea of a global anti-terrorism mercenary force, the Fox News host told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

“I was with Henry Kissinger last night,” O’Reilly said Sunday on This Week. “And he told me my idea of a worldwide anti-terror force paid for by the coalition of nations under the supervision of Congress — Kissinger has endorsed that for years.”

“Bill O’Reilly and Henry Kissinger on a mercenary force?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“Simpatico,” O’Reilly said. He also predicted that a mercenary force would eventually happen, though not under President Obama.

ABC News has reached out to Kissinger for comment.

O’Reilly also said he believes the subject his new book, Gen. George Patton, would handle terrorist threats differently than President Obama if he had the chance.

“If George Patton were alive today, he would be saying to President Obama, ‘Give me the Third. I’ll go into Syria, and I’ll wipe ‘em all out,’” O’Reilly said.

The star of Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor also said he believes Patton’s sudden death was an assassination by the Soviets, possibly assisted by the American OSS — the predecessor to the CIA. OSS did, as O’Reilly notes, cooperate with Soviet intelligence during the Second World War. This theory is the topic of O’Reilly’s book, Killing Patton.

“I think Stalin killed him,” O’Reilly told Stephanopoulos. “Patton was going to go back to the United States and condemn Stalin and the Soviet Union…and Stalin wanted him dead, and I think Stalin got him dead.”

Patton’s death is widely believed to have resulted from injuries from a car accident that happened while he was on a hunting trip in Mannheim, Germany. But O’Reilly in Killing Patton notes that some U.S. sources had pointed to a Soviet plot to kill the general. Immediately after the accident, despite having suffered quadriplegia, the general was improving, and doctors expected that he would survive.

O’Reilly told Stephanopoulos that the general was laughing with hospital nurses and drinking cognac and then died suddenly. He said that under Stalin, the Soviet Union had been hard at work on untraceable poisons.

Medical records obtained by ABC News — records also cited in Killing Patton — show that the afternoon of his death, the general “told nurse several times that he was going to die.” His doctors at the time found “Pulmonary embol[ism] and Right Heart Failure.”

Col. Thomas Frank, an Army historian and Chief of the Department of Medicine at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, told ABC News that the general’s death is consistent with pulmonary embolism following the paralysis caused by the car accident.

Patton’s death remains the subject of debate, in part because Patton’s wife requested that no autopsy be performed, and at least some of the records of subsequent investigations into his death have disappeared.

“What are the odds of that happening to a four-star general?” O’Reilly asked.

Stephanopoulos and O’Reilly also discussed whether Patton could have been poisoned with guards outside his hospital room 24/7; O’Reilly maintained that the guards were there primarily to fend off reporters.

O’Reilly is hoping that his book will provoke the Army to reopen the investigation into the death of one of America’s greatest military heroes, and said that modern science could determine whether his theory is right or wrong.

“Stalin had a factory that produced traceless poisons back then,” he said. “But now, with our advanced technology, we could see if there was something in Patton’s remains.”

Conspiracy theories aside, O’Reilly says there is no one like Patton today.

“General Patton interested me because he was the last no-spin general,” O’Reilly said. “[And it] got him killed.”

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Reflecting on Ferguson Unrest, Obama Expands Minority Youth Outreach Program

Reflecting on Ferguson Unrest, Obama Expands Minority Youth Outreach Program

Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — President Obama says the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer last month exposed a racial divide between law enforcement and black America, and he vowed to expand a White House program aimed at empowering black youth.

“We have to close the justice gap: How justice is applied but also how it is perceived, how it is experienced,” the president said in an address to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual gala Saturday night.

“That’s what we saw in Ferguson this summer when Michael Brown was killed and a community was divided,” he said. “We know that the unrest continues.”

The shooting death of Michael Brown pitted activists and the local black community against law enforcement for weeks and sparked a renewed national debate about police use of force. The Department of Justice is investigating the circumstances surrounding the death.

Michael Brown’s parents watched the president’s speech Saturday night from the audience.

“The anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation once again to the reality that people in this room have long understood that in too many communities around this country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” Obama said. “Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black or talking while black — judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness.”

Speaking before a mix of minority leaders, celebrities, lawmakers, and veterans of the civil rights era, the president announced he would be expanding the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, an initiative launched in February as an outreach program to develop support networks for “young men of color.”

Through it, the administration has gathered $200 million from private donations to go into youth programs including literacy, college preparation, and child engagement over five years. It has featured tutoring programs started by NBA players, and under the program Obama himself has traveled to low income neighborhoods to speak frankly with youth about his own upbringing without a father and drug use.

The White House is expected to announce the details of the new expansion, called a “community challenge” by the president, next week.

The president also took the time to thank Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced this week he would be resigning in the coming months. Holder, who attended the black-tie event, received a standing ovation for his work reducing minimum sentences for minor drug offenses and rehabilitation efforts in the prison system.

“Since I took office the overall crime rate and the overall incarceration rate has gone down by about 10 percent,” Obama said. “That’s the first time they’ve declined at the same time in more than 40 years. Fewer folks in jail. Crime still going down.”

Holder had also traveled to Ferguson in the aftermath of the shooting.

The president’s keynote capped four days of the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s legislative conference. The foundation is the non-profit wing of its Capitol Hill delegation; Obama has attended nearly every year since assuming office with the exception of 2012, when first lady Michelle Obama went in his stead.

Each year the foundation recognizes individuals for their contributions to minority empowerment. Tonight the Phoenix Awards went to boxing legend and activist Muhammad Ali, writer and journalist Susan L. Taylor, media mogul Cathy Hughes, and civil rights leader Prof. Wade Henderson were this year’s recipients alongside Robert L. Wright, CEO of FE Holdings.

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Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton ‘So Happy’ to Be Grandparents

Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton ‘So Happy’ to Be Grandparents

John Moore/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — Chelsea Clinton has given birth to a baby girl, according to a tweet she sent out early Saturday morning.

Her name is Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky.

A Clinton spokesperson confirmed to ABC News that she was born Friday.

Chelsea Clinton tweeted Saturday at 12:32 a.m., “Marc and I are full of love, awe and gratitude as we celebrate the birth of our daughter, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky.”

Her parents, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said Saturday in a statement that they are “blessed, grateful, and so happy to be the grandparents of a beautiful girl.”

“We are thrilled to be with our daughter and her husband as they welcome their daughter into the world,” the statement continued. “Chelsea is well and glowing. Marc is bursting with pride. Charlotte’s life is off to a good start.”

The former first daughter announced that she was pregnant in mid-April.

President Obama even got in on the due-date jockeying, joking while at the Clinton family’s foundation event in New York that she might have to commandeer his motorcade.

“I was just discussing with President Clinton that if Chelsea begins delivery while I’m speaking, she has my motorcade and will be able to navigate traffic,” Obama said with a smirk.

The former first daughter didn’t let her impending due date slow her down as she appeared at an event for her family’s foundation this past week.

Clinton, 34, and her husband Marc Mezvinsky reportedly chose not to learn the sex of their baby before the birth.

She resigned from her role at NBC News on Aug. 29. Clinton and her husband “look forward to welcoming our first child,” she wrote in a note she shared on social media at the time.

Her parents, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have regularly mentioned their joy at earning a new title — grandparents. The former president spoke of his high hopes for the newest member of the family while speaking with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos at the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting.

“I want them to get up every day and look at the world with wonder and reverence. I want them to respect everyone they meet, whatever their background. I want them to be aware of all the people that make their world and not just the people that they are introduced to,” Clinton said.

“I want them to really love being alive. It’s my first and whatever other grandchildren I have — that’s what I want. And when they grow up, I want them to believe they have certain obligations to people who don’t have all the opportunities they’ll have and to the larger society,” he said.

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Clintons Tweet Out Baby Pictures

Clintons Tweet Out Baby Pictures

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images(NEW YORK) —  Hillary and Bill Clinton took to Twitter Saturday to show their joy and celebrate the birth of their granddaughter, Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky.

Hillary Clinton tweeted a photo Saturday afternoon showing her holding her new granddaughter.

The new grandmother sits next to her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

“@BillClinton and I are over the moon to be grandparents! One of the happiest moments of our life,” the tweet read.

Charlotte Clinton Mezvinksy was born early Saturday morning, Chelsea Clinton announced on Twitter.

Former President Bill Clinton also tweeted a photo of him playing with the new baby.

The photo shows the Clintons sitting side by side, cuddling with Charlotte.

“Charlotte, your grandmother @HillaryClinton and I couldn’t be happier!” he wrote.

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