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GAO: 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 was launched still remain months later.

The GAO noted that many systems and entities must exchange information in order for users to optimally utilize 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 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, 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

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

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

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

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'

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

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

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

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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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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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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Financial Guru Suze Orman Backs Elizabeth Warren for President

CNBC/Barbara Nitke(WASHINGTON) -- CNBC TV host and finance expert Suze Orman really likes Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- and she wants to tell everyone about it.

Asked if she would vote for Warren over Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, Orman offered a hearty “yes” in front of an audience at Politico’s “Solving for Y: Exploring Opportunities for the Next Generation” event, featuring both Orman and Warren speaking on student debt.

Although Orman said she thinks Clinton would make an excellent candidate for the Oval Office, the 63-year-old financial guru said she’d vote for Warren because she identifies with the struggle the democrat from Massachussetts is taking on.

“Warren is my political voice,” Orman said.

“Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider for 2016?” Orman jokingly asked Warren, who just smiled.

Unfortunately for Orman and other Warren supporters, Warren has said multiple times she is not going to run for president in 2016.

This isn’t the only time Orman has expressed her opinions on Warren for president. She told Larry King in May on his show PoliticKING that she would vote for Warren “hands down.”

Orman and Warren also have another connection: Both made Time’s list of 100 Most Influential People in 2009.

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Though Quiet on New ISIS Video, White House Is Unchanged on Ground Troops in Iraq

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- The White House is not responding to the release of a short video titled "Flames of War Trailer" that was apparently produced for the terror group ISIS and appears to show attacks on U.S. tanks and troops.

One clip in the 52-second video, which YouTube has removed from its site, shows President Obama saying, "American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq."  Part of the audio from the president's remarks is laid over video of former President Bush walking under a "Mission Accomplished" banner and a shot of the White House.  The video cuts to a frame with the words: "FLAMES OF WAR: FIGHTING HAS JUST BEGUN."  Another frame reads: "Soon, God willing."

As the president meets with military officials in Tampa, Florida, for a briefing on a proposed plan to train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, the White House remains silent on the video. White House officials, however, are emphatic that there is absolutely no change in the President's position that he will not send ground troops to Iraq.

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House to Vote on President's Plan to Take Down ISIS

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Lawmakers are expected to vote Wednesday whether to approve President Obama's plan to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS.

The plan has the support of the leadership in both parties, but there is some bipartisan skepticism.

During Tuesday's debate, Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., a former officer in the Army with a tour of Iraq under his belt, rose to speak in opposition. "This evil organization has to be defeated," Gibson said. "The question is how?"

Gibson explained that he believes ISIS is not a direct threat to the United States and escalating hostilities in Syria "is not the best approach." And Gibson wasn't alone.

"Very, very, very reluctantly I will support this resolution, but with great misgivings," said Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey told senators Tuesday that he believes a U.S.-led coalition, with Arab nations taking part, can destroy ISIS. However, if that plan fails, he might recommend sending U.S. ground troops.

President Obama is scheduled to meet Wednesday with senior military officials at the Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for a briefing on the plan.

The House vote on passage is expected later Wednesday afternoon.

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Ebola Epidemic 'Spiraling Out of Control,' Obama Says

Credit: The White House(WASHINGTON) -- Declaring the Ebola outbreak a "threat to global security," President Obama Tuesday announced a significant American military effort in West Africa to help bring the spread of the deadly disease under control.

"We have to act fast. We can't dawdle on this one," Obama said during a visit to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"It is spiraling out of control, it's getting worse, it's spreading exponentially," he said. "If the outbreak is not stopped now we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected."

The president said there were "profound implications" for the U.S., even if there was no immediate threat of an outbreak on American soil.

Obama said he has ordered the deployment of 3,000 U.S. military personnel to West Africa to take the lead in coordinating an international response, facilitate logistics and engineering.

The Pentagon is establishing a military command center in Liberia to be directed by an American general, who arrived on Tuesday, Obama said.

In the next few weeks, U.S. service members will establish 17 treatment facilities with 100 beds each, train as many as 500 health care workers per week in proper care and containment techniques, and orchestrate a community messaging campaign about the disease, the White House said.

The United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps also will deploy 65 officers to Liberia –- including administrators, clinicians and support staff -- to manage and staff a previously announced Department of Defense hospital to care for stricken health care workers, the White House said.

U.S. personnel will not directly provide care to infected patients in the general population, officials said.

Before visiting the CDC, Obama met at the White House with American doctor and Ebola survivor Kent Brantly, who was flown out of Liberia with government assistance, treated with an experimental serum at Emory University Hospital and recovered.

"He looks great, he looks strong, and we're incredibly grateful to him and his family for the service he rendered," Obama said of the meeting.

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