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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Credit: The White House(WASHINGTON) — The Senate approved President Obama’s plan to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels on Thursday, prompting President Obama to declare a united American front in the fight against ISIS militants.

“The strong bipartisan support in Congress for this new training effort shows the world that Americans are united,” Obama said in a televised statement from the State Dining Room. “I want to thank members of Congress for the speed and seriousness with which they approached this urgent issue — in keeping with the bipartisanship that is the hallmark of American foreign policy at its best.”

Obama called the program a “key element” of his strategy to combat ISIS, supporting non-American boots on the ground, “so that they can help push back these terrorists.”

The Senate voted 78-22 in favor of the plan, with support from 33 Republicans, including Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, to approve Obama’s plan. The House approved the measure on Wednesday.

The president also hailed the growing international coalition of “more than 40 countries, including Arab nations” — singling out France, which announced Thursday that it would join the U.S. in conducting airstrikes in Iraq.

“France is a strong partner,” the president said. “We’re pleased that American and French service members will work together.”

Obama reiterated the pledge he made Wednesday at CENTCOM: “American forces deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat missions. Their purpose is to advise on the ground,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is preparing to expand American airstrikes into Syria, which administration officials have said could come any day.

Obama acknowledged that U.S. pilots will be at risk on those missions. “We salute our dedicated pilots and crews,” Obama said, “who are carrying out these missions with great courage and skill.”

He asked Americans to, “to keep our forces and their families in their thoughts and prayers.”

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Credit: Architect of the Capitol(WASHINGTON) — The Senate passed a stop gap funding measure on Thursday night, which includes authorization for President Obama’s plan to train and arm Syrian moderates in the fight against ISIS.

The Senate voted 78-22 on the continuing resolution, which will fund the government and authorizes Title X until December 11.

Many Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the continuing resolution, making this a rare bipartisan showing in the Senate.

“It’s a long overdue support for the brave Syrians who are fighting on the front lines against the terrorist enemy,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.

“There is no guarantee of success. … There is none but there is a guarantee of failure if we do not even try and try we must,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said of arming and training Syrian fighters against ISIS. “Despite my concerns about the underlying bill…I will support this resolution because I think it’s in the best interest of our national security.”

But several of the president’s biggest allies, including some with tough re-election fights this November, voted against the measure.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, whose Republican opponent in the Alaska Senate race said he would support the president’s plan to arm the Syrian rebels, voted against the continuing resolution due to their opposition to training and arming the Syrian rebels.

“I disagree with my president,” Begich said. “The rebels of today may not be the rebels of tomorrow.”

Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate did not hold a stand-alone vote on the bill, many argued due to concerns of how it would play in the midterm elections this November.

The House had approved authorization to train and arm the Syrian rebels with a vote of 273 to 156 on Wednesday.

The authorization for training and arming the Syrian rebels will run out on December 11th, at which point Congress will have to decide whether it will reauthorize the plan. Sen Dick Durbin, D-Ill., indicated that the Senate will consider a new authorization for the use of military force in November when Congress returns for the lame duck session.

“We are going to take up the construction of a new authorization for the use of military force,” Durbin said. “It’s long overdue. We are living on borrowed time and we’re traveling on vapors. AUMFs passed in 2001 and 2002 are hard to wrap around today’s challenge.”

The continuing resolution now heads to the White House for President Obama’s signature and gives the president the green light to move forward with his plan to train and arm the Syrian rebels.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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