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Gay Marriage: One Step Closer to the Supreme Court? Why Virginia Matters

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Though the Supreme Court issued a major opinion concerning gay rights in 2013, it has so far sidestepped the issue of whether states can ban gay marriages.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Monday striking down Virginia's strict marriage laws brought the issue one step closer to the justices.

It's the second time a federal appeals court has struck down a state ban since the Supreme Court ruling in United States vs. Windsor.

"We are talking about the Commonwealth of Virginia!" Theodore Olson, an attorney for the challengers of the gay marriage ban, exclaimed after the decision was handed down. "It's the birth place of George Washington."

David Boies, another lawyer representing the challengers called the opinion "powerful" and said "it holds that the Virginia marriage laws seriously harm plaintiffs, and seriously harms the children that the plaintiffs raise."

If, down the road, the Supreme Court were to adopt the 4th Circuit’s reasoning, "It would mean that everyone in every state in the nation would be able to marry the person that they love," Boies said, declining to speculate which case the Supreme Court might ultimately take up if it does indeed decide to take up one or more cases.

It will take at least a few weeks for the 4th Circuit's ruling to go into effect. In the meantime, supporters of the law could ask for a re-hearing with either the full court of appeals or the Supreme Court.

Though the opinion deals directly with Virginia's laws, the reasoning could apply to other states under the 4th Circuit's jurisdiction, "including to states with bans that, as the majority noted, are similar to Virginia's, including South Carolina, North Carolina, and West Virginia," said Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center.

Boies noted that the opinion "does not depend upon anything that is unique to Virginia." "I think," he said, "it is clearly controlling law in all of the states in the Fourth Circuit."

Because Virginia's attorney general has declined to defend the law, the conservative group, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has stepped in to represent clerks supporting the marriage law.

After Monday's ruling, ADF's senior counsel Byron Babione released a statement, saying, "Every child deserves a mom and a dad, and the people of Virginia confirmed that at the ballot box when they approved a constitutional amendment that affirmed marriage as a man-woman union."

Babione has not announced any plans for appeal, but he said, "Ultimately, the question whether the people are free to affirm marriage as a man-woman union will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court."

For some, Virginia is an important landmark because of the 1967 Supreme Court decision, Loving vs. Virginia, regarding interracial marriage.

"It's appropriate that marriage for same-sex couples took a big step forward today in a case from Virginia, since Virginia is where the fundamental right to marry was born," said James Esseks, one of the ACLU lawyers who won the Windsor decision at the Supreme Court.

In the 1967 decision the Supreme Court struck down the Commonwealth's ban on inter-racial marriages.

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What's Changed 10 Years After Obama's DNC Speech?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- What a difference a decade makes: this past weekend marked the 10-year anniversary of President Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

One of the biggest visible changes is how Obama's hair has visibly greyed since his time as a state senator from Illinois in 2004.

Back then, Obama was the 42-year-old Democratic state senator who was in the midst of his first U.S. Senate campaign when John Kerry asked him to speak at the convention.

Obama won wide acclaim for his speech, which many cite as a major turning point in his political career.

As for Kerry, the visible decade difference is less pointed then that of Obama. Though Kerry didn't end up winning his presidential bid in 2004 (losing to then-President George W. Bush), Obama has since made him the Secretary of State.

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Why a Frustrated Democrat Wants a Swimming Pool in Darrell Issa's Committee Room

Congressman Cardenas(WASHINGTON) -- A frustrated California congressman is calling for a swimming pool to be installed in the chambers of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — to facilitate a medieval litmus test.

In a statement caked thick with sarcasm, Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., called on the committee's Republican chairman, Darrell Issa, to "install an above-ground pool" to aid the GOP chairman's investigations into a wide range of controversies.

"We are picking winners and losers, when it is clearly obvious that witches can only be found by dunking them in water," Cardenas wrote. "If they float they're a witch. If they don't, installing a pool will allow us to retrieve the non-witch before he or she drowns."

The committee voted Friday to reject White House assertions of "absolute immunity" of David Simas, a senior adviser to President Obama and the director of the new White House Office of Political Strategy, who has refused to testify voluntarily or under subpoena at the committee.

"Like the Chairman, I am interested in effective government oversight and reform," Cardenas continued. "This pool will allow that to take place, wasting far fewer taxpayer dollars in the process."

But Cardenas' proposal — however tongue-in-cheek it is — would be duplicative. Lawmakers already enjoy access to a swimming pool in the lawmakers-only gym in the Rayburn House Office Building, where the committee room is located.

Asked to comment on the pool proposal, multiple aides to Issa refused to directly address Cardenas' idea.

Cardenas joked that the committee's prospective pool could be named the "Senator Joseph R. McCarthy Memorial Truth Pond," and proposed installing a plaque quoting former head counsel for the U.S. Army, Joseph N. Welch, who asked McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Concluding his statement, Cardenas pledged to make the pool available "for staff and member recreation" when the committee is not holding hearings in order "to avoid excessive government waste."

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How Failure to Reform Immigration Affects a Young Girl

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Outside the hallways of the Capitol, the immigration reform debate isn't political. It's personal.

When Washington, D.C. resident Cindy Monge saw the images of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border it hit home. Eight years ago she was one of them.

Monge left Guatemala in 2006 to reunite with a father she had never met and a mother who had spent six years traveling back and forth on a tourist visa.

"I only had one option, which was to cross the border," she says. "I wanted to be with my parents."

Alone at age 11, she traveled from bus to bus, contact to contact as she made the harrowing journey from Guatemala to the Mexico-U.S. border. For eight days she lived off peppermint candies and water, hiding in luggage compartments to evade Mexican authorities.

At the U.S. gates, clutching a false birth certificate provided by smugglers, her plan derailed.

"They took me to the back, they did my fingerprints, they found out everything," Monge says, recalling her journey in an interview with ABC News. "I felt like it was the end for me."

She would spend the next month in a juvenile detention center without an immigration hearing, praying that her undocumented father would risk his own security to claim her.

"I was alone in my thoughts and in my mind about what was going to happen next," she says. "What was going to happen with my parents? Would they even know about me? Would they find out what was going on?"

Monge, who is now 19, shares a story with the 57,000 minors who have flooded through the southern border in the past nine months, a 106% increase since last year. While there is bipartisan agreement an immediate fix is necessary, Congress divides on how to address the crisis and whether to implement comprehensive immigration reform. With the president's $3.7 billion supplemental package in limbo, and the August recess fast approaching, immigrant communities in the United States grow restless over inaction.

A month after she was taken into custody, Monge's father came to claim her from the San Diego detention center. He brought her to Maryland, where he worked as a gardener, and told her to never speak of her status to anyone, to "never come out of the shadows."

"This is a secret and you're taking it to the tomb," she recalls him saying. "To everybody you are a resident or a U.S. citizen."

The flow of unaccompanied children has been a trickle that just recently became a wave. Monge left Guatemala eight years ago for the same reasons children are leaving today – to flee violence and poverty and to reunite with her family.

Immigration expert Marie Price calls it a calculated risk. "The threat is immediate" if individuals stay in these countries, says Price, former director of Latin American studies at George Washington University. "People do get killed, whereas you have a shot of running the gauntlet and getting through Mexico to the United States."

While concentrated in the U.S., unaccompanied minors also seek asylum in countries like Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, which have documented a 435% increase in asylum application in recent years, according to a U.N. report.

Monge quickly learned English, attended public school in Maryland and "understood that I needed to accustom to this country and I needed to Americanize as fast as possible."

When she was 15, she received legal status under Homeland Security's deferred action for childhood arrival plan (DACA). Since 2012, more than 600,000 children have received legal status under the controversial statute.

Congress' inability to agree on legislation has consequences for tens of thousands of families, and poignant consequences for Monge. Her parents grew tired of waiting for reform and decided to leave the country. They were tired, she says, of living in constant fear of arrest and deportation.

"I'm going to be left alone again," she says through tears. For the second time in her short life, she says, she feels abandoned, trapped on the wrong side of a border that's divided her family.

Monge recently graduated from high school and plans to attend community college in the fall. But even once in the U.S., her journey has not been easy.

"Some days we didn't have food in our house. We had nothing," she says. She works two jobs back to back. "I'm always trying to save money. Everything I wear, everything I have was given to me."

But despite the journey, the detention center and the life in the shadows, she doesn't hesitate to say it was all worth it.

"I was in such a small town and now this country is like a world," she says, dreaming of one day working at the United Nations. "It opens your eyes. It opens your mind."

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Congress Reaches Deal on VA Reform Bill

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- After weeks of negotiations, the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees announced a deal Monday that provides at least $15 billion to help address the healthcare issues at the embattled Department of Veterans Administration.

“Funding for veterans’ needs must be considered a cost of war and appropriated as emergency spending. Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war, so is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and who fight our battles,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said.

“We have a VA that is in crisis today. This agreement will go a long way to helping resolve the crisis that exists out there today.  Helping to get veterans off waiting lists is extremely important and this bill does that,” Rep. Jeff Sanders, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said.

The deal provides for $10 billion, which is considered “mandatory emergency money,” to contract care outside of the VA system. An additional $5 billion, which is all offset within the VA, is allotted to hiring new doctors, nurses and clinicians within the VA system. The bill also allows veterans living more than 40 miles away from a VA facility to obtain care outside the VA network.

Some Republicans might object to the measure because it does not include as many offsets to pay for the funding, but Miller remained optimistic that he will be able to convince enough House Republicans to back the measure.

“I come from a sales background before I came to Congress, and I think I can do an adequate job,” Miller said. “As we go through the process, there will be an educational process that will have to take place. Obviously some of our members will need a little more educating than others.”

The chairmen hope to have the bill passed by the end of the week.  The conference committee will still need to approve the bill before it heads to the House and Senate for a full vote.

“It is absolutely imperative that we get this bill done, and we get it done now before the August break,” Sanders said.

Passing the VA reform bill is part of a long to-do list that Congress has to complete before it heads into a five week recess, along with providing funding for highway projects and President Obama’s emergency spending request to deal with the influx of unaccompanied minors streaming across the U.S. Texas border.

“The United States Congress today in my view is a dysfunctional institution,” Sanders said. “There are major issue after major issue where virtually nothing is happening when important legislation needs to be happening.”

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White House: EU to Impose New Sanctions on Russia

Sean Gallup/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The White House on Monday said it expects the European Union to impose new sanctions against critical sectors of the Russian economy this week.

“We expect the European Union to take significant additional steps this week,” Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told reporters at the daily White House briefing, “including in key sectors of the Russian economy.”

Blinken said actions could be taken in the financial, arms or energy sectors. European leaders are also looking to “broaden the criteria by which they can sanction people or entities, and I think one of the things they’re looking at is to bring in some of the cronies of President Putin,” Blinken added.

The U.S. is preparing to take additional steps as well.  “In turn and in full coordination with Europe, the United States will implement additional measures itself,” Blinken said, reiterating “our purpose here again is not to punish Russia but to make clear that it must cease its support for the separatists and stop destabilizing Ukraine.”

The White House insists that the sanctions already imposed by the US and Europeans are having a “dramatic impact on the Russian economy.”

President Obama discussed these next steps for dealing with the crisis in Ukraine on a teleconference earlier Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

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Sarah Palin Announces Subscription-Based Video Channel

Ethan Miller/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Sarah Palin has announced she's launching a subscription-based online video channel.

In a video posted to her YouTube channel, the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate called the project “a news channel that really is a lot more than news.” It will cover stories about her family, behind-the-scenes looks at events and “the issues that the mainstream media won’t talk about,” Palin said.

Palin expressed hope that the channel would be a “community” where viewers could share their concerns directly with her.

The subscription rate is $9.95 a month or $99.95 a year.

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One Congressman's Quest to Protect Jetliners from Missiles

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Steve Israel wants all new U.S. commercial airliners to include some kind of missile defense systems to protect against a terror attack.

The New York Democrat has renewed a push for the legislation after a missile allegedly blew Malaysia Airlines flight 17 out of the sky over the Ukraine and a Hamas rocket landed near Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

“Terrorists are copycats, and I’m concerned that [when] they see these tactics, they’re going to try and employ them,” Israel told ABC News. “We know that there are thousands of shoulder-fired missiles in the hands of terrorists around the world. They’re going to use these things and we are still leaving our public undefended.”

So Israel is on a mission to put missile defense technology on U.S. commercial airplanes.

The congressman says he plans to introduce a bill expanding missile protection for passenger planes, likely one that would require all newly built commercial aircraft include defensive technology. He and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, have also asked the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct an interagency study on the issue.

Israel made a similar proposal after a 2002 missile attack on an Israeli charter plane flying over Mombasa, Kenya. That bill would have required the Defense Department to pay for missile defense technology on all existing U.S. commercial passenger planes, but the multi-billion dollar price tag concerned many lawmakers and the bill was never enacted.

What worries Israel are that shoulder-fired weapons known as MANPADS are portable and easily concealed. And the more primitive versions, though not particularly accurate, are simple to operate and widely available on the black market.

A MANPAD could take out a civilian plane during takeoff or landing. According to Israel, even if the missile missed, a single attempt could “grind U.S. aviation to a halt,” causing a billion dollar-plus hit to the economy.

Israel's El Al airline is reported to have anti-missile systems.

The FAA says it’s not considering requiring domestic carriers to install missile defense systems on planes.

“If you’re flying on an El Al aircraft, you’re defended, Air Force One is defended, many military aircraft, defended. But no commercial plane in the United States fleet is defended. And that’s just wrong,” he said.

Using the defense systems would likely involve sudden in-flight maneuvers that commercial aircraft aren’t designed to handle, which could endanger passengers. And commercial pilots aren’t necessarily trained on the equipment. Airlines have also balked at the cost.

Israel calls the objections “irresponsible.”

“We have a tendency in this country when it comes to homeland security to witness a horrific attack and then the next day, say, ‘why didn’t we?’” he said. “I think it’s irresponsible for the FAA simply to say, ‘well, we’re not going to even look at this.”

He also dismisses the cost argument.

“The pushback that I’ve received from the airline industry is that the cost…is about $1 million per plane. That is true. The cost of an inflight entertainment system is $1 million per plane,” he points out.

“What is safer: being able to watch television at 30,000 feet or knowing that when you take off and land, you’re protected?” Israel says.

Some experts suggest that patrolling airport perimeters could help thwart potential attackers, who are most likely to target planes during takeoff and landing.

But that, too, can be expensive, as effective policing would require monitoring perimeters hundreds of miles deep. (The U.S. can’t regulate patrols at foreign airports.)

“You can’t necessarily fortify the airports, but you can fortify the plane,” Israel said, adding that learning to operate the defense systems is “not that difficult.”

“A very important defense against terrorists is deterrents...If [terrorists] knew that these planes had technologies to protect against a shoulder fired missile, they may be less likely to even try that,” the congressman said. “We should use all the tools in our toolbox -- deterrents, actual protection, defense -- in order to dissuade, deter, and stop them from engaging in this kind of an attack.”

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California Will Have Four Governors in One Week

iStock/Thinkstock(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) -- You may have heard of the recent proposal to split the state of California into six separate states, but perhaps more interestingly, the top political seat in the Golden State will be held by four different people -- albeit only temporarily -- at different times this week.

California will be under the leadership of four different governors at different times, as a number of state leaders will take turns traveling out of state.

Gov. Jerry Brown left the state on a trade mission to Mexico on Sunday, leaving Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in command.

Newsom, however, is set to leave the state on Tuesday, according to the Sacramento Bee, pushing California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg to the top of the political heap.

But Steinberg's control will only last one day until he, too, leaves California.

On Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins will take command until Brown returns from his trip late in the day, says the Sacramento Bee.

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Breakthrough Announced in Bill to Aid Vets

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- A bill to assist the nation's veterans that looked all but dead last week was reportedly agreed upon Sunday by the chairs of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committee.

With Congress set to recess for five weeks after Aug. 1, it was imperative that lawmakers arrive at an agreement to assist tens of thousands of war veterans still waiting medical care at VA clinics across the U.S.

The legislation, expected to be announced Monday by Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Florida Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, presents more options for vets to seek medical attention, especially when they live far from VA facilities.

Among the choices vets would have under the bill is access to private health care providers when they live 40 or more miles from a VA hospital.

In addition, the bill calls for building more centers to care for veterans who critics say have waited an unbearably long time to see doctors because of alleged negligence and possible criminal wrongdoing to cover wait times.

What almost undid the agreement were differences on how much will be spent and how everything will be funded. More details should be available later on Monday.

Although certainly a breakthrough, the plan still needs the approval of negotiators from both chambers as well as a full vote by the House and Senate.

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Obama Calls Netanyahu to Discuss Continued Tension in Gaza

Credit: The White House(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Sunday to discuss the ongoing tensions in Gaza and reaffirm the United States' hope for a lasting cease-fire.

The two leaders spoke after Israel had resumed military operations in Gaza on Sunday, blaming Hamas for violating the cease-fire by launching rockets into Israel. Obama condemned Hamas' attacks against Israel while expressing concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths, the loss of Israeli lives and the worsening situation in Gaza, according to a readout of the phone call.

Obama and his administration continues to press for a permanent cessation of hostilities based on a November 2012 cease-fire agreement. Any such agreement, Obama said, would require the disarming of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza.

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US Less Safe Than Several Years Ago, Top Intelligence Official Says

Photo By: DIA Public Affairs/Public Domain(ASPEN, Colo.) --  The United States is now less safe than it was years ago, in part because a brutal terrorist group has been able to gain power in Iraq after the post-war government there "blew it," a top U.S. intelligence official said Saturday.

The frank words came from Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at a national security forum in Aspen, Colorado, where over several days top current and former counterterrorism officials warned of several simultaneous threats to the United States emanating from the Middle East and Africa.

Asked if the United States is generally now safer than it was two or even 10 years ago, Flynn said, "My quick answer is we're not."

Flynn also took a different view over whether "core al Qaeda" is on the run, as many U.S. officials have claimed. Flynn said he believes "core al Qaeda" is the ideology, not any individuals associated with it, and that is "not on the run."

"That ideology ... sadly feels like it's exponentially grown," he said.

Speaking about the unraveling situation in Iraq, where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is wreaking havoc and threatening the West, Flynn said the U.S. government knew they were gaining influence months ago but was "taken by surprise" when the group so quickly took over parts of Iraq "like a hot knife in butter."

He put the blame for that, though, at the feet of the Iraqi government.

"The Iraqis blew it ... and boy is it coming back to haunt them now," he said.

Though he argued that the United States is no safer than it was years ago, "We understand that we're not, and we're working to organize ourselves better," Flynn said at the forum.

In addition, despite U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the bloody conflict between them might never end, Flynn said.

"I have two grandchildren and they will deal with this," he said. "Is there gonna be peace in the Middle East? Not in my lifetime. Not in my lifetime."

Flynn warned the Israelis "to be careful" about how they go after Hamas, saying, "If Hamas were completely destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse."

He also called on Hamas militants fighting Israel to put their skills to better use. Israeli authorities recently uncovered a series of sophisticated tunnels built by Hamas to launch an attack.

Flynn said a significant amount of "physical energy," money and "engineering intellect" was invested into a "subterranean ability to ... bring violence to not just Israel but to the region."

Hamas should put "those resources and the skills that did that ... into the street-level to build jobs and schools and hospitals and turn it into wealth," said Flynn.

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Texan Bipartisan Pair: American Public Wants an ‘Orderly Border’

United States Congress(NEW YORK) -- With just five days left until Congress adjourns for summer recess, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, are attempting a bipartisan, last-ditch effort to address the border crisis in their home state – but there are few signs of support in Congress.

“The American public wants us to have an orderly border,” Cuellar told ABC’s Jonathan Karl on This Week Sunday. “Right now… they’re seeing chaos at the border.”

The Cornyn-Cuellar bill aims to change the existing 2008 law that differentiates between the process undocumented children coming from Central America and those coming from Mexico go through if they are returned to their home countries after entering the U.S. Specifically, the proposed legislation would allow the U.S. to expedite the deportation process for migrant children from Central America, which is how the U.S. currently handles Mexican immigrants.

Despite the lack of strong support in favor of the proposal from congressional Democrats, Sen. Cornyn said he remains optimistic about House legislators using the Cornyn-Cuellar bill as a potential guide for a solution, while acknowledging difficulties on the Senate side.

“Fortunately it sounds like the House of Representatives is going to move a piece of legislation this week, which would actually offer a solution, and it will include something along the lines Henry and I have proposed,” Cornyn said on This Week. “In the Senate, Senator Reid is – still opposes our proposed solution… My view is a solution beats no solution every day. And nobody has offered an alternative, so I hope we will act.”

When pressed to further acknowledge the lack of support from high-ranking politicians on the left, Cuellar echoed Cornyn’s optimism by noting the White House’s efforts to find a solution to the crisis, while stressing the need to evaluate the current conditions on the border.

“President Obama requested [cooperation] at the beginning; Secretary Johnson has been good, but again I represent the district. I don’t just go down there once in a while and see what’s going on, I live there.” Cuellar said.

“42,000 of the unaccompanied kids out of the 58,000 have come through that small area, so we’re at the epicenter,” Cuellar continued, describing his district, which includes 200 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. “The folks in the community have been dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. We need the resources and we also need a policy change.”

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"New York Times" Editorial Page Editor: 'I Have Smoked Pot'

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- After the New York Times editorial board came out in support of national legalization of marijuana on Saturday, the editorial page editor for the Grey Lady told ABC’s Jon Karl Sunday on This Week, that he has indeed smoked pot.

“I’ve never asked the people that work for me whether they smoke pot, and I’m not going to ask. I have smoked pot in my life. I went to college in Colorado in the 1970′s, you figure it out,” Andrew Rosenthal told Karl.

On Saturday, the Times editorial board published their endorsement of the legalization of marijuana nationwide, stating the “federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana. We reached that conclusion after a great deal of discussion among the members of The Times’s Editorial Board, inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws.”

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Threat from Syria Will Last a Decade, Top Lawmaker Warns

US Congress(NEW YORK) -- The growing chaos in Iraq and Syria, where thousands of Western recruits have joined terrorist groups to train and fight, is cultivating a global threat that the United States is "going to be dealing with for the next decade," the head of the House Homeland Security Committee warned Saturday.

"As that threat grows overseas, so too does that threat to the homeland," Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told a group of counterterrorism officials and reporters attending the Aspen Institute's annual national security forum.

McCaul expressed particular concern over Syria, where "the biggest safe-haven in the world" is fostering a union between expert bomb-makers from Yemen and associates of the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Al Nusrah Front, who are jointly working to develop a new generation of undetectable explosives.

Nearly a month ago, U.S. officials, led by the Transportation Security Administration, boosted security measures at airports overseas amid deepening concerns that Syria-based terrorists could be looking to down a U.S.- or Europe-bound plane, with help from one of the thousands of foreign fighters in the region carrying U.S. and European passports.

"It's the biggest threat to the homeland," McCaul said, noting that many of the foreign fighters in Syria, including more than 100 Americans, have "clean documents, legal travel documents" and "can blend in."

"[Now] you have this combination of technology and manpower coming together," McCaul said.

In a recent interview with ABC News' Pierre Thomas, Attorney General Eric Holder called it "a deadly combination" that is "more frightening than anything I think I've seen as attorney general."

Earlier this year, U.S. officials learned that a particularly extreme "subset" of the Al Nusrah Front and other terrorist groups in Syria was teaming up with elements of the Yemen-based group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to produce "creative" new designs for bombs that could be smuggled onto airplanes, as one source put it.

Asked by ABC News why U.S. officials didn't boost security measures at airports sooner -- when some of that intelligence was first detected -- McCaul indicated that at first the government only saw "the link," not more specific information about what the joint effort was producing.

"The threat became more credible and specific over time," he said.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula built such innovative devices as the "underwear bomb" that ultimately failed to detonate in a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and the group is "still very intent on blowing up airplanes," as McCaul described it.

McCaul praised TSA administrator John Pistole, who was in the audience, for "guarding our airports overseas" and doing "exactly the right thing in protecting American lives."

It's unclear exactly which airports overseas are implementing the expanded security measures, which include requiring U.S.-bound passengers to show that cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices can power-up if they want to carry them onboard.

"TSA overseas is stopping these foreign terrorists from getting into the United States," McCaul added. "They do a great job of keeping them out."

But a number of Americans who went to Syria to fight have made it back into the United States in recent years. Some have been arrested and prosecuted for providing support to a terrorist group, while the FBI tries to "maintain coverage" on those in the United States not currently behind bars, the outgoing head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, said at the Aspen Institute's forum on Friday.

FBI Director James Comey recently said the government is spending "a tremendous amount of time and effort trying to identify" anyone who's gone to Syria, but "the challenge" is how to not miss anyone.

Over four days at the forum in Aspen, current and former U.S. officials warned of a potential homeland threat from the Islamic State, a brutal terrorist group distanced from al Qaeda that is now wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria. But many officials suggested the group is currently focused on efforts in the region with only "aspirational" hopes to ultimately attack the West.

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