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Indiana Lawmakers Will Push for Update to 'Religious Freedom' Law

iStock/Thinkstock(INDIANAPOLIS) -- Indiana's top two Republican legislators will push for an update to the state's controversial "religious freedom" law, the pair said at a news conference Monday, following a wave of national backlash to the state's newest law.

"Hopefully by doing this we'll put the whole issue to rest," Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long told reporters at the State Capitol.

Major corporations, athletes, celebrities and gay-rights activists have lambasted the state's legislature and governor for enacting Senate Bill 101, a "religious freedom" law that states government must clear a higher threshold when enforcing laws that contradict citizens' or corporations' religious beliefs.

Both socially conservative advocates of the bill and pro-gay-rights opponents have said the bill could allow businesses to deny services to gays and lesbians based on their sexual preference. A Christian wedding photographer, for instance, could refuse to photograph a gay wedding by claiming it violated his or her religious beliefs, activists on both sides have said.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill last week, stating in a press conference after he signed it that the law was not meant to promote discrimination.

Indiana State House Speaker Brian Bosma on Monday clarified that the bill was not intended to do that. Bosma called it a "misconception" that the law "allows the denial of services to any Hoosier. It doesn't do that."

Bosma and Long said they will "encourage" their legislative colleagues to pass an update to the bill in the four remaining weeks of their legislative session to specifically address that issue, saying both sides -- supporters and critics alike -- have mischaracterized what the bill would mean for gays and lesbians.

That question has been unclear since Pence signed it into law. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week Sunday, Pence repeatedly dodged specific questions on whether the bill could mean denial of services for gays and lesbians, if companies claimed religious grounds for doing so. Pence repeatedly stated the bill was not about discrimination and had been mischaracterized.

Long and Bosma criticized Pence and said his ABC interview prompted them to call the press conference.

Pence "did not answer questions clearly" in that interview, Bosma said. Pointing to their interpretation that the law will not mean denial of services, Long said, of Pence, "It would've been helpful if he said that yesterday."

Major groups and corporations from Apple to Angie's List to the NCAA and the NBA have released statements expressing a range of "concern" and condemnation of the law. Social conservatives like Bob Vander Plaats of the influential Iowa-based group FAMiLY Leader have praised Pence and the law.

The fallout over SB 101 also hangs over the 2016 presidential race, as Pence has said he's considering a run for the GOP nomination and will reportedly finalize his decision sometime this spring.

Similar laws are on the books in other states, including neighboring Illinois. A similar federal law was signed by president Bill Clinton.

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Obama to Visit Kenya in July

Pete Souza / The White House(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama will head to Kenya this summer, marking his first visit to his father's birthplace since taking office in 2009, the White House announced on Monday.

While there, Obama will hold bilateral meetings and participate in the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which Kenya is co-hosting, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.

The president's trip in July will "build on the success of the August 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and continue our efforts to work with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Kenya, to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security," Earnest said.

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Californians High on Legalized Pot, More Water and Obama

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — If President Obama is considering a political career after the White House, he might want to consider running for governor of California.

Unlike national polls that have consistently shown more people disapproving of the job he's doing than the other way around, 55 percent of respondents to a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California approve of Obama's job performance with just 41 percent giving the president a thumbs down.

One thing in Obama's favor is that 52 percent generally favor his health care law while 42 percent are opposed to it, figures that run contrary to polls that are taken nationally.

As for the most pressing issue facing California, the economy and the state's problematic water supplies due to drought are essentially tied at 24 percent and 23 percent, respectively, among the 1,760 residents polled.

Two-thirds of Californians, in fact, say their regional water supply is a big problem and an equal number don't believe the state is doing enough to combat the drought.

Asked whether the sale and possession of marijuana should be legal in California, a record number -- 53 percent  -- said yes while 45 percent are against legalization.

One other finding that appears to buck the national mood: half of the state's residents believe that California is going in the right direction. Just 41 percent say otherwise.

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Gov. Martin O’Malley: Presidency Not a Crown to be Passed Between Two Families

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Gov. Martin O'Malley, the former Democratic governor of Maryland who is considering a run for the White House, said Sunday that new leadership is needed as the country heads toward the 2016 presidential race.

"The presidency of the United States is not some crown to be passed between two families. It is an awesome and sacred trust to be earned and exercised on behalf of the American people," O Malley told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on This Week Sunday.

When asked whether he was referring specifically to the Clinton and Bush families, the former governor said simply that the principle would apply to any two families.


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John Kerry Staying in Switzerland for Iran Nuclear Talks

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- As the clock continues to tick down on a nuclear deal with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry has canceled a planned return to the United States.

Kerry will remain in Switzerland as the Iran nuclear talks approach their deadline.

Foreign ministers from six world powers are trying to reach a deal with Iran before a self-imposed deadline on March 31.

The focus of any deal would be to restrict Iran's nuclear program in return for easing sanctions.

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence Says Controversial 'Religious Freedom' Law Won't Change

ABC News(INDIANAPOLIS) -- Indiana's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act will not be changing despite critics saying it allows business owners to discriminate against members of the LGBT community, state Gov. Mike Pence said Sunday during an exclusive interview on ABC's This Week.

Pence described the media coverage and opposition to the law as "shameless rhetoric," saying it strengthens the foundation of First Amendment rights rather than discriminates.

“We're not going to change the law," he said, "but if the general assembly in Indiana sends me a bill that adds a section that reiterates and amplifies and clarifies what the law really is and what it has been for the last 20 years, than I'm open to that."

When ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Pence if the law allowed businesses like florists to refuse to work with gay or lesbian weddings, as critics have said, the governor said the situation has more to do with whether the government is involved.

"The question here is if there is a government action or a law that an individual believes impinges on their religious liberty, they have the opportunity to go to court, just as the Religious Freedom and Reformation Act that Bill Clinton signed allowed them, to go to court and the court would evaluate the circumstance under the standards articulated in this act," Pence said.

Pence, a Republican, signed the Indiana Religious Freedom and Restoration Act into Indiana law Thursday. It intends to prevent the government from infringing on individual’s religious beliefs, Pence said, but opponents say the law allows business owners to use religion as a reason to legally discriminate against members of the LGBT community.

A federal version of the religious freedom law was enacted in 1993 but dozens of states have passed their own versions since then, including one passed unanimously in Illinois when President Barack Obama was a state senator. Illinois added specific protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation several years after passing its version of the law.

Pence touted bipartisan support for the law, saying that President Obama and Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi supported similar legislation.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the governor was in damage control mode.

“If you have to go back two decades to try to justify something that you're doing today, it may raise some questions about the wisdom of what you're doing,” he said on This Week. "It should be easy for leaders in this country to stand up and say that it is wrong to discriminate against people just because of who they love."

The Indiana law gained national attention quickly after it was signed when the NCAA, which is based in Indianapolis, released a statement expressing concern that the law would negatively impact athletes and visitors in town for the Final Four games of its men's basketball tournament. Several businesses, including Yelp, have threatened to take their business away from the state.


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Seattle Mayor Prohibits City Employees From Traveling to Indiana

Office of The Mayor(SEATTLE) -- The mayor of Seattle prohibited municipal employees from traveling to Indiana on city funds on Saturday, as the backlash spread against the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's decision comes in response to the law signed Thursday by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence that allows businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians for religious reasons.

Murray said Indiana's new law "doesn't reflect the values" of Seattle.

"Seattle has been a leader in the fight to protect civil rights and ensure equality for all people -- no matter who you are, or who you love," Murray said Saturday in a statement.

"This is why I am ordering that none of our taxpayer dollars should go toward supporting this discriminatory law," Murray's statement continued.

In an interview Saturday with the Indianapolis Star, Pence said he will support legislation to clarify the law.

"I support religious liberty, and I support this law," Pence said. "But we are in discussions with legislative leaders this weekend to see if there's a way to clarify the intent of the law."

But hundreds of people gathered outside of the Indiana Statehouse on Saturday, some carrying "no hate in our state" signs, to rally against the law.

Consumer review service Angie's List also said on Saturday that it is suspending a planned expansion in Indianapolis because of the new law, according to a report by ABC News affiliate WRTV-TV.

Angie's List had sought an $18.5 million incentive package from Indianapolis' City-County Council to add 1,000 jobs over five years. But founder and CEO Bill Oseterle said in a statement that the expansion was on hold "until we fully understand the implications of the freedom restoration act on our employees."

Celebrities including Ashton Kutcher and Andy Cohen have expressed opposition to the law.

 

Indiana are you also going to allow Christian establishments to ban Jews from coming in? Or Vice Versa? Religious freedom??? #OUTRAGE

— ashton kutcher (@aplusk) March 27, 2015

 

 

I can now legally be denied service in Indiana because I am gay, or Jewish? Am I right, @GovPenceIN? Sounds like a fun place to visit!

— Andy Cohen (@Andy) March 27, 2015

 

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Marco Rubio May Announce Presidential Campaign in Miami

Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., may be getting ready to announce his presidential campaign next month.

The Tampa Bay Times reported on Friday that Rubio has reserved the Freedom Tower in Miami for an event on Monday, April 13, which could be the announcement date and site.

An aide to the Rubio told ABC News on Saturday that they still have several options they are looking at, and nothing is final.

If Rubio were to announce on April 13, it would make him the third major Republican contender in the race. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was the first to announce last Monday, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is expected to announced in early April in his home state of Kentucky.

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Religious Freedom Bill May be Coming to North Carolina

gnagel/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(RALEIGH, N.C.) -- Another state is now considering controversial “religious rights” legislation.

A North Carolina State Representative filed a bill this week similar to those in 20 other states across the country, according to a report by ABC News station WTVD-TV.

The bill would allow employers to pick and choose who they want to do business with based on their own personal religious beliefs.

Republican State Representative Paul Stam told WTVD-TV that state or local governments shouldn’t be able to order citizens to do things they have a religious belief against.

“Three or four years ago, when our marriage amendment supposedly was going to kill business in North Carolina.  The 10 states that were fastest-growing in the nation all had marriage amendments,” he said.

Indiana’s Republican Governor Mike Pence signed a new law on Thursday that allows businesses to refuse to serve people based on the business owner’s religious beliefs.

Sarah Preston, who works for the state's American Civil Liberties Union, told the television station that the law is a slippery slope.

“People could ignore non-discrimination laws. They could ignore other laws that they don't want to abide by, just by saying that they have a religious belief,” Preston said.

Raleigh business owner Tony Cope told WTVD-TV that if the law is passed, it would hurt efforts to recruit business and talent.

“It's a hurdle,” Cope said. “I have to spend my time and effort convincing people that, well, this is the way the legislation is going, but it's not really the way we do business in North Carolina."

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Obama Calls Saudi King Over Yemen Developments

vichie81/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama spoke with the new king of Saudi Arabia on Friday over recent developments in Yemen, as Saudi Arabia continues to conduct airstrikes against rebels in parts of the country.

“The President reaffirmed the strong friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and emphasized the United States’ support for the action taken by Saudi Arabia, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, and others in response to President Hadi’s request and in support of the legitimate government of Yemen,” National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.

In addition to underscoring the commitment by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia’s security, President Obama and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud agreed on a collective goal to achieve “lasting stability” in Yemen through a negotiated political solution, according to Meehan.

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Obama Vows to Continue Fight for Middle-Class Economics in Weekly Address

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- In his weekly address, President Obama notes the impact of the Wall Street Reform he signed into law five years ago, and highlighted the importance of protecting American workers' paychecks.

"Five years ago, after the worst financial crisis in decades, we passed historic Wall Street reform to end the era of bailouts and too big to fail," the president said. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created as part of that reform, has "already put $5 billion back in the pockets of more than 15 million families," Obama says. "This week, they took an important first step towards cracking down on some of the most abusive practices involving payday loans."

"Protecting working Americans' paychecks shouldn't be a partisan issue," Obama says. "But the budget Republicans unveiled last week would make it harder, not easier, to crack down on financial fraud and abuse."

He further vowed to continue fighting for middle-class economics.

Read the full transcript of the president's address:

Hi, everybody.  Five years ago, after the worst financial crisis in decades, we passed historic Wall Street reform to end the era of bailouts and too big to fail. 
 
As part that reform, we created an independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with one mission: to protect American consumers from some of the worst practices of the financial industry. 
 
They’ve already put $5 billion back in the pockets of more than 15 million families.  And this week, they took an important first step towards cracking down on some of the most abusive practices involving payday loans. 
 
Millions of Americans take out these loans every year.  In Alabama, where I visited this week, there are four times as many payday lending stores as there are McDonald’s.  But while payday loans might seem like easy money, folks often end up trapped in a cycle of debt.  If you take out a $500 loan, it’s easy to wind up paying more than $1,000 in interest and fees. 
 
The step the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced this week is designed to change that.  The idea is pretty common sense: if you’re a payday lender preparing to give a loan, you should make sure that the borrower can afford to pay it back first. 
 
As Americans, we believe there’s nothing wrong with making a profit.  But there is something wrong with making that profit by trapping hard-working men and women in a vicious cycle of debt.  
 
Protecting working Americans’ paychecks shouldn’t be a partisan issue.  But the budget Republicans unveiled last week would make it harder, not easier, to crack down on financial fraud and abuse.  And this week, when Republicans rolled out their next economic idea, it had nothing to do with the middle class.  It was a new, more-than-$250 billion tax cut for the top one-tenth of the top one percent of Americans.  That would mean handing out an average tax cut of $4 million a year to just 4,000 Americans per year, and leaving the rest of the country to pay for it. 
 
I don’t think our top economic priority should be helping a tiny number of Americans who are already doing extraordinarily well, and asking everybody else to foot the bill.  I think our top priority should be helping everybody who works hard get ahead.  This country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. 
 
That’s what middle-class economics is all about, and as long as I’m your President, that’s what I’ll keep on fighting to do.
 
Thanks, and have a great weekend.

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Rep. Phil Roe Touts Bipartisan Legislation to Strengthen Medicare in GOP Weekly Address

US Congress(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., gave the weekly Republican address, highlighting the benefits of bipartisan legislation passed this week by the House to strengthen Medicare.

Roe, a physician by trade, begins by explaining the unsustainability of Medicare. "Right now, a married couple -- both 66, both making average earnings -- will receive more than double in benefits what they actually contribute in Medicare payroll taxes over the course of their lifetimes," he notes. Roe also notes that doctors "will soon be hit with an automatic 21 percent cut to the payments they receive for treating patients on Medicare."

The House-passed legislation would replace Medicare's Sustainable Growth Rate formula, meaning in Roe's words, "a more stable Medicare program."

"We need to repeal the president's flawed health care law," Roe concludes. "We need to put the focus on patient-centered reforms that lower costs." Still, Roe says, "for now, this is progress."

Read the full transcript of the Republican address:

Hello, I’m Dr. Phil Roe, and I have the great honor of representing Tennessee’s First Congressional District, which is located in the beautiful mountains of East Tennessee.  As a physician, I ran a successful medical practice in Johnson City for 31 years, delivering more than 5,000 babies.

Today I’d like to talk to you about strengthening Medicare so it works for everyone from seniors now to a child born today.

First, here’s a fact.  Right now, a married couple – both 66, both making average earnings – will receive more than double in benefits what they actually contribute in Medicare payroll taxes over the course of their lifetimes.  That’s unsustainable.  It’s what’s driving our debt, and robbing our kids and our grandkids of benefits they’ll never see.

Not only that, but due to what’s called Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate formula, or SGR, doctors will soon be hit with an automatic 21 percent cut to the payments they receive for treating patients on Medicare.  This only jeopardizes seniors’ access to physicians they count on every day.

Congress has faced this cliff before, nearly 20 times in fact.  And it won’t surprise you to learn that each time, Congress has punted, spending your money on short-term fixes without providing any kind of certainty for doctors and our seniors. 

But this time is different.  This week, the House passed bipartisan legislation to permanently repeal this formula.  Instead, we’re delivering the first real entitlement reform in nearly two decades.

These reforms ask higher-income seniors, like myself, to pay a little more for their premiums for Part B and D, and encourage certain beneficiaries to think more like consumers when it comes to their health care – a concept we know is the right approach to reducing health care costs.  Both reforms will be phased in over time.

For seniors, this will end years of needless concern and frustration that care will suffer from arbitrary cuts.

And for families, this will mean a more stable Medicare program to care for their elderly parents.

And for taxpayers, this will result in a huge amount of savings 20, 30, 40 years down the road.

Of course, much more needs to be done and like you, my to-do list for fixing our health care system is pretty long.

We need to repeal the president’s flawed health care law.  We need to put the focus on patient-centered reforms that lower costs.   And we need to make the real reforms necessary to ensure Medicare and all of our entitlement programs can serve future generations.

For now, this is progress, and it’s an example of what we can accomplish when we focus on finding common ground.

Thank you so much for listening.

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Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy Criticizes Clinton's Decision to Wipe Emails from Server

Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy on Friday criticized Hillary Clinton, saying she had "unilaterally decided to wipe her server clean and permanently delete all emails from her personal server."

Last week, Gowdy called for Clinton to turn her email server to a third-party for analysis of her records. "After seeking and receiving a two-week extension from the committee," Gowdy said Friday, "Secretary Clinton failed to provide a single new document to the subpoena issued by the Committee and refused to provide her private server to the Inspector General for the State Department or any other independent arbiter for analysis."

Gowdy said that the committee learned on Friday that Clinton had wiped the server. "While it is not clear precisely when Secretary Clinton decided to permanently delete all emails from her server, it appears she made the decision after October 28, 2014, when the Department of State for the first time asked the Secretary to return her public record to the Department," Gowdy wrote.

Gowdy further criticized Clinton, saying that "not only was the Secretary the sole arbiter of what was a public record, she also summarily decided to delete all emails from her server ensuring no one could check behind her analysis in the public interest."

Terming Clinton's decision "unprecedented," Gowdy says that that action involves the Select Committee and Congress, "but also those of the American people and their right to the full record of her tenure as secretary of State."

Clinton has previously said that she deleted all private emails after turning over the records she and her team had identified as public record.

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Indiana Religious Freedom Bill Might Rile 2016 Race

US Congress(WASHINGTON) -- Indiana Gov. Mike Pence stirred fierce backlash from critics by signing a "religious freedom" law on Thursday, and he might have also shaken up the 2016 presidential race in the process.

The former congressman and potential 2016 presidential candidate signed into law a controversial state Senate bill that simply states the government can't interfere with people and businesses exercising their religious beliefs. Religious freedom is already protected under the U.S. Constitution, and Pence posed the new law as an innocuous affirmation of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling, against the mandate for employer-provided birth-control coverage under Obamacare.

Known as a social conservative, Pence has said he's considering a White House run and will reportedly decide sometime this spring.

The bill has sparked intense backlash online, but it's won a very important fan for Pence: Bob Vander Plaats, the noted Iowa-caucus kingmaker who heads up the FAMiLY Leader, a socially conservative group that exercises notable political influence in the critical primary-campaign state.

"I think it definitely boosts his credibility, not just with a group like ours, but for any freedom-loving American who wants to have a full-spectrum conservative in the White House," Vander Plaats told ABC News.

Since Pence signed the bill, critics have lashed out at the governor online. Miley Cyrus posted a photo of Pence on Instagram, calling the governor an "a**hole." Businesses reportedly lobbied against the bill, and Yelp's CEO said it sets a "terrible precedent."

Pence defended the law at a press conference on Friday after he signed it, saying it is "not about discrimination" and pointing to similar laws in other states, and to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by president Bill Clinton. Pence said he thinks there has been a lot of "misunderstanding" surrounding the bill.

Critics see it differently. The bill "absolutely does" give a green light to discrimination, according to Jenny Pizer, national director of law and policy at Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal-defense and advocacy group.

"Many people take these bills as a message that the usual rules to not apply, and that other people should endure mistreatment if that is based on a religious motive," Pizer said.

At issue is whether businesses can discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and transsexual clients: for instance, wedding photographers, wedding-cake bakers, or florists who may see a gay wedding as contradicting religious beliefs against gay marriage. In some places, businesses already can refuse to serve gays and lesbians, Pizer said, with nondiscrimination laws on the books in fewer than half the states and a dozen counties in Indiana. For Pizer and other critics, the concern is that the bill will green-light discriminatory attitudes.

For Pence, the decision could bring embarrassment for his state -- the NCAA issued a strongly worded statement that it is "concerned" about the law's effects, as the men's basketball Final Four heads to Indianapolis next weekend -- but it could also provide a political windfall among activists like Vander Plaats in key primary states.

"This isn't about driving through McDonald's and saying you can't order a Big Mac 'cause you're gay," Vander Plaats, who says he's examining Pence along with other candidates, told ABC. The social-conservative vote will likely be sought by the likes of Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and a handful of others in the 2016 GOP race. Huckabee and Santorum each carried Iowa with Christian-conservative messages in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

"Gov. Pence, he did a great job signing that legislation, and I truly believe this will be a big issue in the 2016 race, the idea of religious freedom," Vander Plaats said.

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Kerry Calls for 'Expedited Review' of State Department's Record Keeping

State Dept photo(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State John Kerry this week sent a letter to State Department Inspector General Steve Linick calling for the department to review its records preservation policies.

"It is critical for the State Department to preserve a full and complete record of American foreign policy," Kerry writes, noting that "it is also important for the American public to have access to that record." While he praises the strides made by the department in terms of both preservation and transparency, Kerry says that more still must be done.

"We must adapt our systems and policies to keep pace with changes in technology and the way our personnel work," Kerry writes. He also highlights the "sizable Freedom of Information Act burden" that the department receives each year -- as many as 18,000 requests.

Kerry admits that "putting the principles of preservation and transparency into practice is an evolving challenge, often hampered by resource constraints," but that his department must increase its efforts to do so.

Kerry brings up a number of key questions that he hopes would be central to a potential review, including the ways the department can improve its tools and methods for complying with FOIA requests, the challenges posed by the department's international presence.

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