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Kerry Talks Syrian Rebels, ISIS at House Foreign Affairs Hearing

Kerry Talks Syrian Rebels, ISIS at House Foreign Affairs Hearing

Credit: US Department of State(WASHINGTON) — Secretary of State John Kerry provided optimistic figures for the size of the Syrian rebel forces at a House hearing Thursday.

“Indeed, the Syrian opposition is in the tens of thousands,” Kerry said at a House Foreign Affairs hearing. While he opted against providing a specific figure, he noted that there are, “at least seven groups with somewhere between a couple of thousand and 4,000 fighters each.”

That figure, Kerry noted, does not include all of the moderate forces.

The secretary of state also questioned whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is serious about combating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“There is evidence that Assad has played footsie with [ISIS] and he has used them as a tool of weakening the opposition.” Kerry speculated that Assad avoided taking on ISIS headquarters and other assets for that reason, saying “we have no confidence that Assad is either capable of or willing to take on [ISIS].”

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Hillary Clinton Blames GOP for ‘Egregious’ Policies Toward Women

Hillary Clinton Blames GOP for ‘Egregious’ Policies Toward Women

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — During a panel at the Center for American Progress Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s message was clear: Equal pay for women, access to affordable, quality childcare, paid sick leave, and the full participation by women in the U.S. labor force will lead to a stronger economy (even a 10 percent increase in the GDP, she argued).

But Clinton also made clear she believes politicians on “the other side of the aisle” are preventing any such policy changes from passing through.

“Congress increasingly, despite the best efforts of my friends and others, is living in an evidence-free zone where what the reality is in the lives of Americans is so far from the minds of too many who don’t place the highest priority on … family-centered economics,” Clinton said.

“We could all tell stories of people we know who had really egregiously been impacted by the failure of our political leadership on the other side of the aisle to recognize the importance of making sure that people who work hard, play by the rules, have a chance to get into the middle class and certainly a chance to stay in the middle class,” she added.

Thursday’s panel in Washington, D.C., which also included Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., focused on women’s economic security and finding solutions to what Gillibrand dubbed as Mad Men era policies that she believes still exists in the United States today.

One featured guest, a student and single mother from Chicago, described how she was laid off from her job at Whole Foods after she took a day off to pick up her son after his school cancelled classes in minus 30 degree weather.

Gillibrand said that lack of paid leave makes her “the angriest,” arguing that even Pakistan and Afghanistan have more paid leave than the United States. She said stories like this were “outrageous.”

The overall message among all the panelists was the notion that “the number one” thing the U.S. could do to make its economy stronger would be to tap into the full potential of women in the workplace. Without this support, Gillibrand argued, “we are providing an artificial drag on the economy.”

Clinton, however, was the most vocal of the women to slam Republicans for their resistance to change.

“I think the other side will hang on for all they’re worth — Nancy [Pelosi] knows that better than anybody. But I think if voters, if citizens speak up for themselves, for their families and their futures, we will see the kind of changes we’re all advocating for,” Clinton said to audience applause.

While the panelists engaged in an amiable conversation about an issue they are all passionate about, the end took a bit of a competitive turn.

Pelosi teasingly called out Clinton (former senator of New York) for “bragging” that New York had the first women’s rights conventions at Seneca Falls in 1848. Pelosi reminded everyone that her state — California — had just celebrated its 10th anniversary with paid leave.

DeLauro then chimed in to defend her state too. “I just don’t want to pre-empt New York or California, but quite frankly Connecticut was the first state to have paid sick leave and to increase its minimum wage,” she quipped.

Clinton simmered down the group: “Competition is good on this one!” she yelled out, with a smile.

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CBP to Investigate Officer Misconduct, Test Body Cameras

CBP to Investigate Officer Misconduct, Test Body Cameras

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Responding to complaints of excessive force, Customs and Border Protection   Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske has announced the agency will now have the authority to conduct criminal investigations into misconduct within its ranks and will introduce the use of body cameras.

“This is something that has not existed in a pretty good number of years,” Kerlikowske said of Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s decision to give this authority to CBP.

“This is in conjunction with the office of inspector general. We now have the primary authority to conduct these independent internal criminal investigations. That authority translates to a more timely and a more transparent process to investigate misconduct,” Kerlikowske added.

In addition, the agency will also begin testing the use of body cameras next month for agents at their training facility in Artesia, New Mexico.

“We’ve purchased a number of different styles. As you know the border patrol works in some very difficult terrain [and] Artesia, New Mexico, where they train is one of the best places to practice this,” he said. “So we’ll be looking at what are the best cameras, what system works the best and then we’ll move on to other phases of field testing.”

The commissioner also announced the creation of an office of internal affairs, as well as an inter-agency board to review use of force incidents. He called the move a “significant step forward” in line with law enforcement’s best practices.

The effort to change the agency comes as Kerlikowske works to increase transparency within the largest law enforcement agency in the United States.

The agency has come under scrutiny in recent years after multiple incidents of use of deadly force, including the cross border shooting of a teen in Senora, Mexico who was accused of throwing rocks.

According to the Arizona Republic, Border Patrol agents have shot to death 46 people in the past decade, 15 of whom were Americans.

Mark Morgan, interim head of Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs office, announced last week that 155 cases of the 860 cases since 2009 merit further investigation.

“I’m very interested in making sure that cases that still have questions are answered, but I’m also very interested in making sure that we go forward with how we’re going to investigate cases in the future,” Kerlikowske said. “I think you have to put one into context. When I talk about us having that criminal investigative authority, we’re a large organization, we own this problem, and we own the responsibility to make sure that we’re doing a good job of investigating it.”

Responding to whether or not ISIS is a concern to infiltrate the southwest border, Kerlikowske told ABC News, “I think there’s always a concern on the terrorism front, we certainly are not seeing any organized attempt on the southwest border right now.”

“We review and look at well over now, 400,000 people that have been apprehended,” he said. “We watch very carefully and do extensive interviews with those people who have been apprehended.”

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First Lady Meets with Student Poets, Highlights Importance of the Arts

First Lady Meets with Student Poets, Highlights Importance of the Arts

The White House(WASHINGTON) — First lady Michelle Obama met with five members of the 2014 class of the National Student Poets Program on Thursday, touting the importance of the arts as “key to success…in school and in life.”

The five poets, from grades nine through 11, were selected from a pool of National Medalists in Poetry through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

“What these young people are doing doesn’t just take talent, doesn’t just take hard work,” the first lady said, “it actually takes a lot of courage…to open your soul to the world.”

Mrs. Obama thanked the students’ parents and praised the poets for pushing through “endless drafts, the late night struggles with writer’s block and all those moments, I’m sure, of fear and doubt.”

The five selected poets read their poems aloud.

“The process for these young people isn’t just about how they create great works of poetry…it’s the key to success, period. In school and in life,” Mrs. Obama said Thursday. “That’s why it’s so critical that every child has access to the arts in schools.”

The first lady went on to call the arts “as essential as what [students] eat or drink or breathe in.”

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Watch US Intel Chief James Clapper Try Stand Up Comedy

Watch US Intel Chief James Clapper Try Stand Up Comedy

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a normally serious guy, took on the role of comedian in front of a group of intelligence officials Thursday.

He talked about the high standards the public expects of the intelligence community these days.

“We are expected to keep the nation safe and provide exquisite, high-fidelity, time-accurate, anticipatory and relevant intelligence,” he said. “And to do that in such a manner that there is no risk and no embarrassment to anyone if what we’re doing is publicly revealed. And there is no threat to anyone’s revenue bottom line. And there isn’t even a scintilla of jeopardy to anyone’s civil liberties and privacy, whether a U.S. person or foreign persons. We call this new approach to intelligence ‘Immaculate Collection.’”

“Sorry, I couldn’t resist,” he added. “And by the way, we have to conduct Immaculate Collection on the cheap, too.”

At the event in Washington, D.C., Clapper also unveiled the 2014 National Intelligence Strategy. An unclassified document, it lays out the intelligence environment and identifies emerging threats.

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House to Begin Six Weeks of Vacation, Campaigning

House to Begin Six Weeks of Vacation, Campaigning

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The House majority leader’s office announced Thursday that after the day’s votes, the rest of the legislative business that had been previously scheduled will be cancelled, allowing lawmakers to jet back to their districts for six straight weeks of campaigning ahead of the midterm election.

The House was previously scheduled to be in session on Friday, and Sept. 29 through Oct 2.

As noted in the announcement, the schedule change is contingent on the Senate passing the Continuing Resolution. But that bill to fund the government — and authorize U.S. military to train and equip vetted Syrian opposition forces — is widely expected to pass through the Senate Thursday evening.

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Ukrainian President Pleads for Military Aid at US Capitol

Ukrainian President Pleads for Military Aid at US Capitol

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke before a joint meeting of Congress Thursday, notably asking the United States to provide both lethal and non-lethal assistance to Ukraine, saying “one cannot win the war with blankets!”
 
“They need more political support throughout the world. They need more military equipment, both lethal and non-lethal, urgently need,” Poroshenko said to applause as he spoke to a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol. “Please understand me correctly. Blankets, night vision goggles are also important but one cannot win the war with blankets.  Even more we cannot keep the peace with a blanket and this is most important of our values, of our aim, not to win the war, but keep the peace. For keeping the peace, we should be strong enough and there is not any doubt that we will be strong because of you. because our solidarity.”
 
Poroshenko’s address came just hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee marks up legislation that would impose new sanctions on Russia and provide military and non-military assistance to Ukraine.
 
The Ukrainian president skipped an entire section from his prepared remarks in which he thanked President Obama. The prepared remarks feature these lines, which he completely left out of his speech:
 
“I would like to thank the U.S. and all our partners for their support. I want to personally thank President Obama for the coherent position on Crimea annexation and support to Ukraine. The world remembers his words in Warsaw: ‘We will not accept Russia’s occupation of Crimea or its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
 
Later Thursday, Poroshenko is slated to have lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and meet with President Obama in the Oval Office.

The White House Thursday announced that the U.S. will provide $53 million in additional aid to Ukraine, including $46 million in non-lethal security assistance.

In his speech, Poroshenko thanked Congress for its support and urged lawmakers to continue to stand in solidarity with Ukraine.

“I urge you not to let Ukraine, not to let Ukraine stand alone in the face of this aggression,” Poroshenko said.  “This is very important that the whole world will see this gesture of solidarity. Ukraine is not alone. We are together. We are united and we win because our fighting, is fighting for freedom, is fighting for democracy and I will absolutely no doubt that our victory will be very close. I’m absolutely sure that United States made the commitment it will stand behind Ukraine’s territorial integrity and we hope that it will live up to that promise.”
 
Closing out his speech, Poroshenko quoted New Hampshire’s motto “Live free or die!” saying it exemplified the tenacity of the Ukrainian people.
 
“Live free or die are words of Ukrainian soldiers standing on line of freedom of this war. Live free must be the answer with which Ukraine comes out of this war,” he said. “Live free must be the message Ukraine and America send to the world while standing together in this time of enormous challenge.”

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US Senate Candidate Gets Boost from “Game of Thrones” Author

US Senate Candidate Gets Boost from “Game of Thrones” Author

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call(WASHINGTON) — Sen. Tom Udall’s campaign has enlisted the help of Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, who is holding a unique event for the incumbent senator’s re-election bid.

One winner and a friend will get to attend the exclusive VIP event with Udall, D-N.M., and Martin at Martin’s personal cinema in Santa Fe, where a “discussion on New Mexico issues and politics in support of Sen. Udall’s reelection campaign” will take place.

The minimum $5 donation for the contest gets the lucky winners airfare and hotel, along with VIP access to the main event, photo reception and dinner. General admission tickets start at $250, with additional meet and greet and photo reception tickets costing $1,000.

Big fans (and supporters) might be most interested in the $2,600 ticket option, which will give them VIP access to the event, photo reception and an exclusive dinner where they will “get to talk with George and Tom and ask them anything.”

 

Win a trip to meet George R.R. Martin and Senator Udall in Santa Fe. Enter here: http://t.co/gqPj0ohYQ4 #GRRM #GoT pic.twitter.com/mLG9CD8Vjs

— Tom Udall (@tomudall) September 18, 2014

 

A Game of Thrones, the first book of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, fantasy series was published in 1996. The series was adapted for television by HBO in 2011. Over seven million viewers watched the Game of Thrones season finale in June.

Both the senator and author are supportive of New Mexico’s conservation efforts. Earlier this year, Martin hosted a Prizeo fundraiser to benefit New Mexico’s Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary and the Food Depot of Santa Fe, which went on to raise over $500,000.

Martin is naming two characters in his upcoming novels after the highest donors.

Udall has served in the Senate since 2009, and is favored to win the election.

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Clapper Talks ISIS at Intelligence and National Security Summit

Clapper Talks ISIS at Intelligence and National Security Summit

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — ISIS is a group of “very sophisticated recruiters and motivators.”

That’s what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told intelligence experts at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington Thursday when asked about raids in Australia the day before that resulted in the arrests of 15 people involved in a terror plot connected to ISIS.

“It’s emblematic of the world we’re in — a lot of the discussion about ISIL and the potential threat it may pose to the homeland.  People conjure up the image of another 9/11 attack or something of that magnitude,” Clapper said. “…In this case with this group, who are very sophisticated recruiters and motivators…we continue to worry, I think, more than any other single threat — you know the homegrown version, which are very hard to detect. So I think what’s happened in Australia is a manifestation of that threat.”
 
Clapper also unveiled the 2014 National Intelligence Strategy, which is entirely unclassified. It lays put the intelligence environment and tried to identify emerging threats. This year, Clapper put the code of professional ethics for intelligence gathering right in front in the report. It’s seven points are mission, truth, lawfulness, integrity, stewardship, excellence and diversity.
 
The DNI chief noted that AFPAK fighters in Syria, in terms of a threat to the homeland, perhaps pose the same threat as ISIS.
 
As for government funds that would be allocated to counterterror efforts, Clapper added that many people in government have high security clearances, which largely go unused, that cost the government large sums of money that could be better spent.

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GAO: Healthcare.gov Security, Privacy Weaknesses Still Exist

GAO: Healthcare.gov Security, Privacy Weaknesses Still Exist

ABC News(WASHINGTON) — An audit released by the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday says that some privacy and security flaws that existed when Healthcare.gov was launched still remain months later.

The GAO noted that many systems and entities must exchange information in order for users to optimally utilize Healthcare.gov to compare, select and enroll in private health insurance plans. When the website launched, it was notably full of security holes, glitches and errors that complicated users’ efforts to sign up for health insurance.

In Capitol Hill testimony about the myriad problems with the site back in November, ABC News reported that “white hat hacker” David Kennedy highlighted for Congress that the beleaguered website, which cost hundreds of millions to launch, had critical flaws and exposures, “that hackers could use to extract sensitive information.” Kennedy said at the time, “Just by looking at the website, we can see that there is just fundamental security principles that are not being followed,” before physically demonstrating how easy Healthcare.gov was to hack. “We can actually…monitor [a user's] webcam, listen to their microphone, steal passwords…Anything that they do on their computer we now have full access to.,” Kennedy advised.

In Wednesday’s audit, the GAO notes that while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have, “taken steps to protect the security and privacy of data processed and maintained by the complex set of systems and interconnections that support Healthcare.gov, weaknesses remain.”

CMS, the GAO says, “did not and has not yet ensured a shared understanding of how security was implemented for the federal healthcare marketplace” among each entity involved. Until the CMS addresses the existing weaknesses, the GAO warns, “unnecessary risks remain of unauthorized access, disclosure, or modification of the information” users may input.

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House Authorizes US Military to Train, Equip Syrian Rebels

House Authorizes US Military to Train, Equip Syrian Rebels

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The House of Representatives voted Wednesday afternoon to approve President Obama’s request to authorize the U.S. military to train and equip vetted Syrian opposition forces.

By a vote of 273 to 156, the House easily passed the amendment, which was attached to a stop-gap spending bill to fund the government through Dec. 11. The bill was later passed by the House by a vote of 319 to 108.

Seventy-one Republicans and 85 Democrats opposed the vote on the Title X authority while 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats voted in favor of it.

The Title X authorization to aid Syrian opposition forces will expire at the latest by Dec. 11. If Congress clears a National Defense Authorization Act before that date, the authorization could expire even earlier.

Obama praised the passage of the authorization, calling the vote a step towards the U.S. making a “decisive difference” in confronting ISIS. He also urged the Senate to pass the bill “without delay,” while affirming his previous statements that no U.S. troops will be on the ground in Syria, and all training will occur outside of the Syrian borders.

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US Troops in Iraq ‘Will Not Have a Combat Mission,’ Obama Insists

US Troops in Iraq ‘Will Not Have a Combat Mission,’ Obama Insists

The White House(TAMPA, Fla.) — Speaking to hundreds of military personnel in Florida, President Obama on Wednesday sought to reassure the people tasked with carrying out his new anti-terror strategy that “the American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.”

“As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” the president told troops packed into a gymnasium at MacDill Air Force Base, after meeting with top commanders about the new strategy to counter the ISIS threat.

“After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures. And that’s the only solution that will succeed over the long term,” he said.

As the U.S. seeks to build an international coalition of support, the president reiterated “this is not and will not be America’s fight alone.”

“We’re not going to do this alone. And the one thing we have learned is that when we do things alone and the countries — the people of those countries aren’t doing it for themselves, as soon as we leave we start getting the same problems. So we’ve got to do things different,” he said. “We cannot do for the Iraqis what they must do for themselves.”

Obama’s remarks come one day after his top military adviser opened the door to possibly deploying U.S. ground forces in the fight against ISIS if airstrikes prove insufficient.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

Dempsey is not alone. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned on Wednesday that “there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy.”

“I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won't be troops on the ground], the president in effect traps himself,” Gates told CBS News.

“Sending our service members into harm’s way is not a decision I ever take lightly; it is the hardest decision I make as president,” Obama said in closing his remarks.

“Nothing else comes close. I do it only when I know the mission is vital to the security of this
country that we love. I do it only because I know that you’re the best there is at what you do,” he said.

Still, on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the president could consider sending advisors into combat situations on a case-by-case basis. “They would not be personally or directly engaging the enemy… in some cases they could be in positions to call in airstrikes,” Earnest said. “But as General Dempsey said yesterday, this has not yet been necessary.”

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Phoenix Wait-Lists ‘Contributed’ to VA Deaths

Phoenix Wait-Lists ‘Contributed’ to VA Deaths

ABC News(NEW YORK) — Delays caused by secret waiting lists “contributed” to deaths at the Phoenix VA earlier this year, an assistant inspector general who helped draft a controversial Inspector General report admitted Wednesday under intense questioning by the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

The assertion by Dr. John Daigh comes less than a month after the Office of the Inspector General proclaimed in its official report that it is “unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely care caused the deaths of these veteran.”

Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., asked Daigh whether he could “conclusively assert that wait-lists did not contribute to the deaths of veterans?”

“No,” Daigh replied.

When asked whether he’d be “willing to say wait-lists contributed to the deaths,” Daigh responded,  “Yes.”

It was a startling admission, following complaints that the OIG softened the report at the VA’s request.  The sentence about being “unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely care caused the deaths of these veterans” was not in the first draft of the report and only appeared in the final draft after the VA had a chance to review and comment privately on it.

Daigh also said that while he could not say “the delays caused the deaths,” he also could not say they didn’t.

That caused Jolly to ask him whether such was the case, and why put one assertion in the report but not the other.

“The issue is cause or, of course, a direct relationship, how tight of a relationship do you want? That’s where the difficulty is here,” Daigh said.

Daigh said earlier in the testimony “I’m not clairvoyant. It’s very difficult to know how someone died.”

The acting inspector general, Richard J. Griffin, added “We don’t know how they died or why. Nor do you, I would say that it may have contributed to their death, but we can’t say, conclusively, it caused their death.”

The Inspector General’s Office also suffered severe criticism from two whistle-blowers testifying before the Veterans Affairs committee. Dr. Samuel Foote and Dr. Katherine Mitchell scolded the OIG for downplaying the causation and link between wait times and deaths.

“I would like to use this statement to comment on what I view as the foot-dragging, downplaying and, frankly, inadequacy of the Inspector General’s Office,” Foote said.

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Obama, Biden Expected to Jointly Launch Campaign Against Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Obama, Biden Expected to Jointly Launch Campaign Against Sexual Assault on College Campuses

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) — President Obama and Vice President Biden will jointly launch a new campaign on Friday to increase awareness of sexual assaults on college campuses.

The campaign, called “It’s On Us,” is expected to include celebrity and professional athletes making an online and social media push. Notably, the campaign is believed to be aimed at men, as research indicates they are less likely to speak out against violence against women.

In April, a White House task force released a report that noted, “when men think their peers don’t object to abusive behavior, they are much less likely to step in and help.”

The White House is also expected to partner with colleges to help spread the word.

The White House task force is scheduled to unveil a model campus sexual assault prevention policy by the end of September.

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Joe Biden Refers to Asia as ‘The Orient’

Joe Biden Refers to Asia as ‘The Orient’

Official White House Photo by David Lieneman(DES MOINES, Iowa) — Vice President Joe Biden described Asia as “the Orient’ in a speech in Iowa on Wednesday, hours after he apologized for using a word that could be perceived as anti-Semitic.

“You know, on the way back from Mumbai to go meet with President Xi in China, I stopped in Singapore to meet with a guy named Lee Kuan Yew, who most foreign policy experts around the world say is the wisest man in the Orient,” Biden said at the kickoff for the “Nuns on the Bus” tour.

The word “Orient” is considered widely outdated and could be perceived as offensive, or insensitive, especially when used in reference to people.

The Republican National Committee jumped on the remark, with its Asian-American spokesman Ninio Fetalvo saying in a statement, “Vice President Joe Biden’s insensitive remarks are offensive to both Asian-Americans and our Asian allies abroad.”

“His comment is not only disrespectful but also uses unacceptable imperialist undertones. It’s time for the vice president to apologize and to understand that his comments embarrass our country,” Fetalvo added.

Meanwhile, Biden apologized earlier Wednesday, saying he made a “poor choice of words” when he used the word “Shylock” to describe bankers who take advantage of U.S. troops returning from serving overseas. The word can be perceived as an anti-Semitic term.

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Obama’s Unexpected Air Force One Routine Causes Suspense

Obama’s Unexpected Air Force One Routine Causes Suspense

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) — There was a moment of suspense and mystery surrounding President Obama’s arrival at Andrews Air Force Base Wednesday when the highly choreographed routine took a peculiar turn.

All seemed to be running as usual when the president arrived on Air Force One at 3:28 p.m. Wednesday, after delivering a speech to troops in Florida.

But after stepping off the plane, the president spent several minutes chatting with several Secret Service agents before getting into the presidential limo, known as the Beast.

Then, instead of pulling off the tarmac, his motorcade made a loop and pulled up next to an unidentified, smaller plane. The president then walked up the steps of the plane and spent several minutes aboard before walking back down the steps and getting into his motorcade and pulling away.

“Prior to heading back to the White House, the president stopped to chat briefly with FLOTUS prior to her departure for her trip,” according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, referring to the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.

Minutes later, the first lady was spotted stepping off that plane and walking across the tarmac to another plane that is part of the usual Air Force One fleet. She is scheduled to speak in Memphis, Tennessee, Wednesday afternoon. There was a maintenance issue with her plane.

“The First Lady is delayed by approximately an hour and a half. The delay was caused by an aircraft maintenance issue. As previously planned, the First Lady is looking forward to visiting with the children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and their families,” according to the White House.

Adding to the mystery, the TV pool coverage that customarily carries the arrival and departure of Air Force One live was blocked from the tarmac by base officials. White House officials said they don’t know why the cameras were blocked, contrary to policy.

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Benghazi Committee Probes Progress to Improve Diplomatic Security

Benghazi Committee Probes Progress to Improve Diplomatic Security

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — A little more than two years since four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya, the Benghazi Select Committee held its first public hearing Wednesday, examining the steps the Department of State has taken to improve diplomatic security around the world in the wake of the deadly attack.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the committee, pointed out that the Benghazi attack “was not the first time one of our facilities or our people have been attacked,” citing Beirut, Kenya and Tanzania as three instances when Americans were targeted overseas.

He said it is incumbent on Congress to ensure steps are taken to prevent similar failures in the future.

“We do not suffer from a lack of recommendations. We do suffer from a lack of implementing and enacting those recommendations, and that has to end,” Gowdy, R-S.C., said. “To those who believe it is time to move on, to those who believe that there is nothing left to discover, that all the questions have been asked and answered and that we’ve learned all the lessons that there are to be learned, we have heard all of that before, and it was wrong then.”

While Democrats have complained that Republicans are keen on repeating the work of several other investigations into the attacks, Gowdy said he “would rather run the risk of answering a question twice than run the risk of not answering it once.”

“I intend to find all of the facts and I intend to do it in a way that is worthy to our fellow citizens,” Gowdy added. “They expect the government tell the truth in the aftermath of a tragedy. Always.”

While Democrats have consistently complained that Republicans have launched a “witch hunt” as they continue to probe the attack, the subject of Wednesday’s hearing was proposed by a Democrat on the panel.

“This is our watch,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, responded. “This is bigger than us. The things that we do today and over the next few months will have lasting effects even when we’re gone on to heaven, and that’s how we have to look at this.”

Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Greg Starr told the panel that the State Department has made “tremendous progress” implementing the recommendations made by the Benghazi Advisory Review Board. Starr said that 22 steps have been fully implemented while seven others “are in progress or are nearing completion.”

“We want to keep our people safe,” he said. “Today, we’re better prepared, better protected and informed to manage the risk.”

After the hearing, Cummings stressed that it is inadequate for the State Department to say it is working to implement the ARB’s recommendations, nearly two years after the panel submitted its proposals.

“We will definitely hold the State Department’s feet to the fire,” Cummings, D-Md., said. “It is not enough to say what you’re going to do. It is not enough to say that you have accepted and are working on seven recommendations with the others complete. We want to make sure that all of them are complete.”

While there is intense speculation that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could be asked to appear at the committee in the coming months, Gowdy would not reveal whether he intends to invite her to testify.

“I want the person who can answer the questions. I’m not interested in titles,” Gowdy said. “I want whoever can answer the questions, but I expect we’ll talk to all witnesses.”

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Biden Rolls into Iowa with Nuns on a Bus

Biden Rolls into Iowa with Nuns on a Bus

The White House(DES MOINES, Iowa) — Just three days after Hillary Clinton visited the presidential testing grounds of Iowa, Vice President Biden was right behind her with a populist speech that sounded at times like it was 2016. Although this trip was an official White House visit, in Iowa the topic of presidential politics can’t be avoided.

Biden’s address focused on raising the minimum wage and making life better and fairer for the middle class. He came to the Iowa Capitol to help launch a nationwide tour of the liberal group “Nuns on the Bus.” The vice president joined about a dozen nuns on stage who are heading out their rolling nunnery on a 10 state, 36 city tour of the country registering voters and preaching their message of social justice.

Biden, the nation’s first Catholic vice president, noted his 12 years of Catholic education telling the crowd of about 300, “I was asked by the press why am I going out with Nuns on the Bus? I said because they are nuns. It’s a simple proposition,” adding to laughs, “I woke up every morning saying, ‘Yes sister, no sister, yes sister, no sister.’”

He thanked the nuns for their work for health care reform saying in his signature colorful style, “The Nuns on the Bus fought like the devil for health care.”

The audience cheered Biden who appeared with his sleeves rolled up on a warm, sunny Iowa day, but Hillary Clinton cast a shadow over the appearance.

Mike Winjum was wearing an Obama-Biden T-shirt and enthusiastically spoke about how his father still talks about meeting Biden at last year’s Harkin Steak Fry. He called the vice president a “great guy,” saying “when he talks, people listen.” But, when asked about whether he could caucus for Biden in 2016, he didn’t hesitate: “Nope, I’m for Hillary. If Hillary jumps out, I’ll be for Joe. He’s number two.”

Arloene Yungclas was at the event to celebrate her 80th birthday and although she likes the vice president, she said without a pause, “I’d like to see a woman be president of the United States and I think she (Clinton) is pretty knowledgeable about the world.”

Her husband Jim agreed saying Biden is “probably” in Iowa because of possible presidential ambition, but “I would like to see a woman become president and Hillary would be a good president, she would be a good representative for us.”

Mazie Johnson, a Democratic activist, was wearing a blue “Ready for Hillary” T-shirt.

“I am personally a huge fan of Hillary, I’m very supportive of what she is doing for women in the political world. She brings a lot of power and she also has an incredible track record of supporting fellow women, so I would absolutely say I am very supportive of Hillary,” Johnson said.

On Sunday, Clinton returned to the first caucus state of Iowa for the first time since 2008 when she came in third in the Iowa caucuses behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.  Over 6,000 people attended the Harkin Steak Fry Sunday where she headlined, along with former President Bill Clinton.

Biden, who hasn’t ruled out another presidential bid, made no mention of Clinton, but did at times sound like he was on his third presidential campaign trail railing against income inequality, as well as restrictions on voting rights.

This was Biden’s first trip to the state since the last Harkin Steak Fry last year. He will hold a photo line fundraiser for multiple candidates while in Des Moines, but he won’t stump for any 2014 Democratic candidates, including Bruce Braley who is running to succeed Harkin in the Senate. A poll out Wednesday from Quinnipiac University showed his Republican rival Joni Ernst with a six point lead.

After his speech, Biden boarded the nuns’ bus, stopping at the Waveland Café, a Des Moines diner. He added his signature to the side of the bus, signing it with a black Sharpie.

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Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

Why One Congressman Is Tweeting Out the Whole Constitution

Why One Congressman Is Tweeting Out the Whole Constitution

Hemera/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — Wednesday is the U.S. Constitution’s 227th birthday, celebrated as a federal holiday called Constitution Day.

Here’s a look at how some lawmakers are celebrating Constitution Day 2014:

  • Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, 81, made us all feel out of shape when the Republican tweeted a picture Wednesday morning after running over 6 miles from his house to the Capitol, in a shirt that says “Rural Power.”
  • California Rep. Darrell Issa tweeted the entire Constitution. Article I alone was over 130 tweets, and took over an hour to type and send. The Republican probably lost some followers along the way, too.
  • Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who live-tweeted his visit to the hospital last week, responded to Issa’s idea with an easier way to read the Constitution in full.
  • Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware tipped his hat to Sen. Robert Byrd, who passed the bill founding the holiday 10 years ago.
  • Kansas Rep. Jim Ward spent the day speaking to classes of eighth-graders, a task he called “exhausting.”
  • The White House tweeted a photo of President Obama, along with a news release about the day. ”As we celebrate our Nation’s strong and durable framework, we are reminded that our work is never truly done,” Obama said. “Let us renew our commitment to these sacred principles and resolve to advance their spirit in our time.”

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Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

Pelosi Unsure How House Vote to Train Syrian Rebels Will Turn Out

Pelosi Unsure How House Vote to Train Syrian Rebels Will Turn Out

Mark Wilson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — As the House prepares to vote on Title X authorization to arm and train Syrian moderates in the fight against ISIS Wednesday afternoon, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi would not predict what the outcome of the vote would be.

“I don’t know how the vote will turn out. It’s not a vote we whip,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a news conference Wednesday. “I do think that as members weigh the facts, that they will, I think, give points to the president for all that he has done diplomatically, politically, humanitarian wise and ask for this discreet piece. It is not to be confused with any authorization to go further.”

Asked about the possibility of sending ground troops to combat ISIS, Pelosi said, “I will not vote for combat troops to be engaged in war.”

“We are not there to support combat troops in any of these engagements,” she added. “Our purpose is not to engage in civil war in Syria and our purpose is not to continue the war in Iraq. Our purpose is to stop ISIS from its brutality. ISIS conforms outside the circle of civilized human behavior. It is a threat to our friends in the region. It is a threat to us and it’s a threat to stability and it must be stopped.”

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Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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