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WASHINGTON (AP) — For the United States, Syria's civil war is threatening to start hitting closer to home.

Peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition are faltering. President Bashar Assad's military is on the offensive and the rebels are in disarray. Most distressing to the Obama administration, U.S. officials say al-Qaida-linked militants are squeezing moderates out of the insurgency and carving out havens for potential terrorist plots against the United States.

The accelerating U.S. national security threat is leading the administration to take a fresh look at previously shelved ideas, including more robust assistance to Western-backed rebels.

They are also are looking at newer, more far-reaching options, including drone strikes on extremists and more forceful action against Assad, whom President Barack Obama told to leave power 30 months ago.

Obama's top aides plan to meet at the White House before week's end to examine options, according to administration officials. They weren't authorized to talk publicly on the matter and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

"We have to examine what the alternatives some might be proposing are and whether they're in our national security interest," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. He expressed concern about stepped-up intervention leading to "unintended consequences."

For all the talk about policy changes, American officials remain hampered by the same constraints that have stymied the U.S. response throughout the three-year civil war, including concern that lethal assistance could end up in the hands of extremists. And then there also is Obama's own distaste for military action.

After more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has desperately sought to avoid embroiling the U.S. in another deadly and inconclusive war. He backed away last year from his threat to take military action in response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack when it became clear Congress would not vote its approval.

Even options short of direct strikes pose difficulties.

Grounding Assad's air force by enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria would most likely require a large-scale attack on the military's advanced air defense systems. Military support for the opposition continues in the form of small weapons and ammunition. But proposals for sending more powerful weaponry raise fears that it could fall into the hands of extremist rebel groups, which are melding with moderate rebels.

The U.S. remains opposed to Saudi Arabian deliveries of shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missiles because of the potential risk to commercial aircraft.

"Right now we don't think that there is a military solution," Obama said last week following talks on Syria with French President Francois Hollande. At the same time, Obama called the situation on the ground "horrendous" and acknowledged "enormous frustration" with peace talks in Geneva, which ended last weekend without progress.

By any account, the U.S. policy of sending limited military aid for Syria's moderate opposition coupled with support for U.N.-brokered peace talks between the rebels and Assad's government isn't working.

Appalling scenes of emaciated children leaving the besieged city of Homs last week underscored the desperate plight of many Syrians — and the potential for more suffering. A second round of Geneva negotiations ended last weekend with little promise for a future breakthrough and with fresh American frustrations with Russia, which is Assad's most powerful military and diplomatic supporter.

The administration concedes Assad's hold on power has strengthened.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered lingering hope that peace talks could yield results.

However slowly, the potential for a terrorist base developing in northern Syria akin to Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks may be changing the administration's thinking.

In recent weeks, the president's senior national security aides have delivered dire warnings about extremist havens in Syria and about Americans and other Westerners joining the fight and being radicalized.

Testifying before Congress this month, National Intelligence Director James Clapper estimated there were about 26,000 extremists in Syria, including around 7,000 foreigners, in an insurgency encompassing 75,000 to 110,000 fighters. For example, Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most powerful rebel factions, has "aspirations" for attacks on the United States, he said.

In addition to worries about foreigners, officials cite concerns about small numbers of Americans who've fought in Syria and returned home. The officials describe these as a "handful," with European countries facing "several dozen" similar cases. But they believe some were probably recruited by extremists, indoctrinated and provided terror training. And more Americans may be heading over to fight.

The stark assessments have prompted questions from Congress about potential action. So far, the administration hasn't provided answers.

U.S. officials said missile strikes by drone or military aircraft against al-Qaida-linked forces have been considered, even if they are unlikely in the near future. The Pentagon has advised against any such strikes because of sketchy U.S. intelligence on the rebel forces in Syria, according to two U.S. officials.

To monitor the threat, officials said, the U.S. and its allies are trying to track any Western fighter returning home from Syria.

___

Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Matthew Lee in Paris contributed to this report.

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Los Angeles police were investigating allegations of child abuse by a Roman Catholic priest in 1988, they asked for a list of altar boys at the last parish where the priest worked.

Archbishop Roger Mahony told a subordinate not to give the list, saying he didn't want the boys to be scarred by the investigation and that he felt the altar boys were too old to be potential victims, according to a deposition made public Wednesday.

The detectives investigating allegations against Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, a visiting Mexican priest, ultimately got the names of the boys from parish families. They determined the priest molested at least 26 boys during his 10 months in Los Angeles, according to the priest's confidential archdiocese file and police records made public by attorneys for the victims.

Twenty-five of the alleged victims were altar boys and the 26th was training with the priest to be one, said Anthony DeMarco, a plaintiff attorney. It's not clear what impact Mahony's action had on the investigation, though at the time police complained that the archdiocese wasn't fully cooperating.

Mahony's deposition was obtained by The Associated Press and is part of the evidence included in a settlement of abuse claims against Aguilar Rivera and four other priests. The archdiocese, the nation's largest, agreed to pay $13 million to 17 victims.

Since 2006, the archdiocese has paid more than $700 million to settle clergy abuse lawsuits by hundreds of victims. Internal church files kept on priests accused of abuse were released last year under court order. They showed that Mahony, who was elevated to cardinal and retired in 2011, maneuvered behind the scenes with his top aide, Monsignor Thomas Curry, to shield molester priests, provide damage control for the church and keep parishioners in the dark.

When the files were released, prosecutors said the cases fell outside the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of any church officials.

Mahony's sworn testimony in the case of Aguilar Rivera is significant because it's the first time he has been questioned under oath about clergy abuse since the confidential church files were released. During past depositions, attorneys haven't had documents to back up their questions, DeMarco said.

"This time when he's trying to do the 'I don't remember' routine, I put the document in front of him and said, 'You wrote this, right?'" he said.

J. Michael Hennigan, an attorney with the archdiocese, said Mahony didn't reveal a list of altar boys, also called altar servers, to police because he didn't believe any of the alleged victims were among them. Mahony was in Rome on Wednesday and was not available to comment, Hennigan said.

"My recollection is at the time that memo was written there was no suggestion that altar servers were involved," the attorney said, adding that Mahony was "very vigorous" in trying to get Aguilar Rivera brought back to the U.S. for prosecution after he fled.

"What I know is there came a time when whatever the police wanted we gave them and it was shortly after this, but I don't know if the police ever reissued that request," he said of the list.

Aguilar Rivera was accused in January 1988 by two families who told church officials that he had fondled their children and, in one instance, climbed into bed with a boy after drinking too much during a Christmas celebration at the family's home.

The priest was told about the complaints by Curry and fled to Mexico before police were notified. He remains a fugitive and is believed to be in Mexico.

Church files released last year show that Mahony ordered Curry to withhold the altar boy list from the LAPD.

In a Jan. 26, 1988, handwritten note on a memo about the police request for a list, Mahony wrote, "We cannot give such a list for no (sic) cause whatsoever."

In the deposition, Mahony expanded on his reasoning. Allowing police to question altar boys at the two parishes where Aguilar Rivera worked would have created a "negative effect on a large group of altar servers who know nothing about any of this and that was -- not a good idea."

It "could be very traumatic to those servers to all of a sudden be sitting in front of a policeman being interrogated," the cardinal said. "And we had no suspicion at that time of any other victims and nobody among the altar servers."

He denied under questioning from plaintiff attorneys that his motivation in holding back the list was to protect the priest and delay the investigation.

Mahony also defended Curry, the vicar for clergy, for telling Aguilar Rivera that the church would need to contact police and that the accused priest was "in a good deal of danger."

The complaints came in on a Friday and Curry met with the priest on Saturday morning. Police weren't notified until Monday and Aguilar Rivera was gone.

Mahony also testified about the case of accused priest Peter Garcia, who already was in treatment for alleged sexual abuse when Mahony took over the archdiocese in 1985.

The following year, Mahony wrote to the director of the New Mexico center where Garcia was receiving treatment and warned that the priest couldn't return to Los Angeles in the foreseeable future. The two alleged victims had switched attorneys, he wrote, and "I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here with the Archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors."

In his deposition, Mahony said that letter was not intended to keep Garcia safe from prosecution.

"Was I interested in having a big civil upset here for the archdiocese? No, I was not. And -- but I was not encouraging him to avoid criminal prosecution," he said.

"You've got to realize, you know, they talk about these states lines. State lines mean nothing," Mahony added. "I mean this is not a big deal. ... He's not in a country that doesn't have a -- what do they call those? -- an extradition treaty. He's a few hours from here."

Mahony, who turns 78 later this month, has largely retreated from the public eye since traveling to Rome last year for the papal conclave.

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