Obama likely to adjust U.S. spying on foreign leaders, nearing decision on intelligence changes

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama is expected to tighten restrictions on U.S. spying on foreign leaders and also is considering changes in National Security Agency access to Americans’ phone records, according to people familiar with a White House review of the nation’s surveillance programs.

Obama could unveil his highly anticipated decisions as early as next week. Ahead of that announcement, he is consulting with lawmakers, privacy advocates and intelligence officials who were invited to White House meetings Wednesday and Thursday.

"He’s at that stage still where he’s listening and discussing with a variety of stakeholders and appreciates very much the opinions and counsel he’s getting on this matter," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Among the changes Obama is expected to announce is more oversight of the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, a classified document that ranks U.S. intelligence- gathering priorities and is used to make decisions on scrutiny of foreign leaders. A presidential review board recommended increasing the number of policy officials who help establish those priorities, and that could result in limits on surveillance of allies.

Documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. was monitoring the communications of several friendly foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The revelations outraged Merkel as well as other leaders, and U.S. officials say the disclosures have damaged Obama’s relations around the world.

Schools sending too many kids
to court rather than principal’s office, administration says

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration on Wednesday pressed the nation’s schools to abandon what it described as overly zealous discipline policies that send students to court instead of the principal’s office. Even before the announcement, school districts around the country have been taking action to adjust the policies that disproportionately affect minority students.

Attorney General Eric Holder said problems often stem from well intentioned "zero-tolerance" policies that can inject the criminal justice system into school matters.

"A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct," Holder said.

But it’s about race, too, the government said in a letter accompanying the new guidelines it issued Wednesday.

"In our investigations, we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students," the Justice Department and Education Department said in the letter to school districts. "In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem."

mails, texts suggest top aide to Christie engineered N.J. traffic
jam as political payback

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- A political furor surrounding Gov. Chris Christie intensified Wednesday with the release of emails and text messages that suggest one of his top aides deliberately created traffic jams in a New Jersey town last September to punish its mayor.

An "outraged and deeply saddened" Christie said he was misled by his aide, and he denied any involvement in the apparent act of political payback.

The messages were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations Wednesday amid a statehouse investigation into the whether the huge traffic backup was retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election last fall.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

"Got it," Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City.

Al-Qaida-linked group ramps up violent, regional campaign that threatens Syria’s neighbors

BEIRUT (AP) -- Al-Qaida is positioning itself as a vanguard defending the Sunni community against what it sees as persecution by Shiite-dominated governments across Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

As a result, a Syrian rebellion whose aim was the removal of President Bashar Assad is evolving into something both bigger and more ambiguous: a fight increasingly led by Sunni jihadis -- often foreign and animated mainly by hatred of Shiites -- who are determined to create an Islamic state.

Battling these extremists is a coalition that includes moderates who are horrified that their rebellion in Syria has been discredited, with parts of the country falling under strict religious law.

For moderates in the Middle East, the renewed assertiveness of the extremists is increasingly taking on the aspect of a regional calamity.

"The war in Syria has poured gasoline on a raging fire in Iraq, and conflicts in both countries are feeding upon one another and complicating an already complex struggle," said Fawaz A. Gergez, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "Now the reverberations of the Syria war are being felt on Arab streets, particularly Iraq and Lebanon, and are aggravating Sunni-Shiite tensions across the Arab Middle East."

With al-Qaida flag fluttering over hard-won Fallujah, some questioning whether losses in vain

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Shirley Parrello knows that her youngest boy believed in his mission in Iraq. But as she watches Iraqi government forces try to retake the hard-won city of Fallujah from al-Qaida-linked fighters, she can’t help wondering if it was worth Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Parrello’s sacrifice.

"I’m starting to feel that his death was in vain," the West Milford, N.J., woman said of her 19-year-old son, who died in an explosion there on Jan. 1, 2005. "I’m hoping that I’m wrong. But things aren’t looking good over there right now."

The 2004 image of two charred American bodies hanging from a bridge as a jubilant crowd pelted them with shoes seared the city’s name into the American psyche. The brutal house-to-house battle to tame the Iraqi insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad cemented its place in U.S. military history.

But while many are disheartened at Fallujah’s recent fall to Islamist forces, others try to place it in the context of Iraq’s history of internal struggle since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. And they don’t see the reversal as permanent.

"I’m very disappointed right now, very frustrated," says retired Marine Col. Mike Shupp, who commanded the regimental combat team that secured the city in late 2004. "But this is part of this long war, and this is just another fight, another battle in this long struggle against terrorism and oppression."

Seeking to curb fallout, Obama aides push back on Gates book critical of Obama, Biden

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rushing to curb political fallout, the White House pushed back Wednesday against harsh criticism in a new book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that questions President Barack Obama’s war leadership and rips in Vice President Joe Biden.

The tell-all memoir from Gates has created a splash in Washington, casting a negative light on Obama’s national security operations by detailing a high level of discord among the small team that made key decisions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For two key participants -- Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- the accusations could color how the two potential 2016 presidential candidates are viewed by voters.

Initially caught off guard by the book’s accusations, Obama’s aides walked a fine line between publicly rebuking his former defense chief and allowing Gates’ claims to go unchallenged. Still, the White House hurried to Biden’s defense and said the president disagrees with Gates’ characterization.

White House spokesman Jay Carney disputed several of Gates’ points individually but said Obama appreciated Gates’ service. He said those who have the privilege to serve at high levels make their own decisions about whether and when to divulge details of private conversations after they leave government.

"I’ll leave it to other folks to decide," Carney said.

Venezuelan leaders scramble to discuss crime as outrage spreads over slaying of beauty queen

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Nicolas Maduro hastily gathered state governors and mayors Wednesday to talk about the country’s violent crime amid public outrage over the killing of a popular soap-opera actress and former Miss Venezuela.

Hundreds of actors and writers took to Caracas’ streets to demand the government protect its citizens from the callous killers responsible for giving Venezuela one of the world’s highest murder rates.

More than nine in 10 homicides go unsolved in this troubled oil-rich nation, according to the independent Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

Robbers killed actress Monica Spear, 29, and her former husband, Thomas Henry Berry, 39, around 10:30 p.m. Monday on an isolated stretch of highway while the couple was returning to the capital by car with their 5-year-old daughter from a vacation.

The slaying followed a pattern of late-night attacks carried out by disabling cars with obstacles placed on roadways.

Backers of immigration reform spar with opponents in House as Boehner works on GOP policies

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Conservatives and the nation’s biggest business lobby sparred Wednesday over immigration overhaul, with advocates vowing a renewed effort to get the House to act this year and opponents digging in against anything that shifts the political spotlight from President Barack Obama’s troubled health care law.

The latest skirmish came as proponents raised expectations of congressional action on the contentious issue, seizing on any glimmer of positive developments. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told rank-and-file Republicans in a closed-door session that he would soon outline party principles on the issue, which could serve as a precursor to legislation.

One of the GOP’s crucial backers on many policies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, promised to "pull out all the stops" to get legislation done.

"We’re determined to make 2014 the year that immigration reform is finally enacted," Tom Donohue, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said in his State of American Business address. He said the organization would engage in grassroots lobbying, communications and partnership with unions, similar to what it did to secure a bipartisan bill in the Senate last year.

Later, in a news conference, Donohue said the chamber had received a "very positive response" in the House on immigration.

Utah mom, serving as gestational surrogate, to give birth to daughter’s daughter

PROVO, Utah (AP) -- A 58-year-old Utah woman is set to give birth in a few weeks -- to her first grandchild.

Julia Navarro is serving as a gestational surrogate for her daughter and son-in-law after the couple struggled with fertility problems.

Navarro’s daughter Lorena McKinnon said she began trying to have a baby with her husband, Micah McKinnon, three years ago.

The 32-year-old Provo woman said she’s had about a dozen miscarriages, with the longest pregnancy lasting 10 weeks.

After several tries, the couple began looking for a surrogate. McKinnon said a friend and sister both considered carrying her baby, but ultimately decided against it.