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Harold Koh Relitigates the Argument He Already Lost

The NYT thinks the takeaway “news” of Harold Koh’s speech on Forever War is his call for more transparency on drone killing. Yet that Koh supports more transparency on drones is not news. Daniel Klaidman has been reporting that since January 2012.

What’s newsworthy about this call for transparency, though, is how shrill it is.

But since then, to be candid, this Administration has not done enough to be transparent about legal standards and the decisionmaking process that it has been applying. It had not been sufficiently transparent to the media, to Congress, and to our allies. Because the Administration has been so opaque, a left-right coalition running from Code Pink to Rand Paul has now spoken out against the drone program, fostering a growing perception that the program is not lawful and necessary, but illegal, unnecessary and out of control. The Administration must take responsibility for this failure, because its persistent and counterproductive lack of transparency has led to the release of necessary pieces of its public legal defense too little and too late.

As a result, the public has increasingly lost track of the real issue, which is not drone technology per se, but the need for transparent, agreedupon domestic and international legal process and standards.

Perhaps this shrillness is why Koh ends the speech with a grandiose invocation of our “better angels.”

Because I am an American who loves his country, I have served it for ten years of my professional career. My former professor and former Legal Adviser Abram Chayes once said, after he had sued the United States government from the academy, “I have always thought there is nothing wrong with an American lawyer holding the United States to its own best standards.” It is in that spirit that tonight, from this important podium, I call my country to its own best values and principles. As President Lincoln famously said, there is still time–indeed, it is high time– for Americans once again to answer to the “better angels” of our national nature.

Though it should be noted that Attorney Abe Lincoln appealed for us to answer to our better angels at the beginning of his service in the Executive Branch, not after he had left that position of influence (something John Wilkes Booth prevented in any case). Why is Harold Koh saying this now?

After all, this battle, the battles for transparency, for “discipline” in the drone program, and for closing Gitmo, are all battles he fought and lost while he was still in government.

It’s how Koh relitigates the last of those battles, closing Gitmo, I find most interesting. He calls for the appointment of a Greg Craig type to implement the plan Craig tried to implement himself in the first year of the Obama Administration.

First, and foremost, he must appoint a senior White House official with the clout and commitment to actually make Guantanamo closure happen. There has not been such a person at the White House since Greg Craig left as White House Counsel in early 2010. There must be someone close to the President, with a broad enough mandate and directly answerable to him, who wakes up each morning thinking about how to shrink the Guantanamo population and close the camp.

Second, this White House Envoy need not develop a new paradigm for closing Guantanamo. He or she merely needs to implement the National Archives framework that the President announced three years ago. The White House Envoy should lead the Administration’s efforts to implement the three-part framework for closure of the Guantanamo detention facility specified in the President’s 2010 speech at the National Archives. That speech described a framework for how this closure could happen: through diplomatic transfers of those individuals who could be safely transferred, prosecution of those who can be tried before civilian courts when possible and military commissions where that is the only option, and third, by commencing the long-overdue legally mandated periodic review of so-called Law of War Detainees to see if any can be released, because of changes either in their attitude or in the conditions of the country to which they could be transferred.

Now, I’m all in favor of closing Gitmo and this might be one way to do it. Koh actually improves on the prior plan by admitting the indefinite detainees will have to be released as the war is over, which is legally correct but misapprehends why they’re not being released and why we have to have a Forever War to justify keeping them silent and imprisoned forever.

But Koh’s map for closing Gitmo also misrepresents why appointing Greg Craig himself to carry out the Gitmo task didn’t work. Read more

“The President Ultimately Made the Call”

GQ has another of those articles describing Eric Holder’s failed efforts to restore DOJ’s independence and sustain rule of law as Attorney General. There are a few new details in there — such as details of what torture was described in the CIA IG Report but must be among the redactions (notably, strangling of one prisoner).

As he flipped through the pages of one report, Holder told me, reading descriptions of field agents holding a power drill to the head of one prisoner, strangling another, battering some, waterboarding others, and threatening to rape their wives and children, he was filled with “a combination of disgust and sadness.”

The piece is more rich in capturing Holder’s self-denial, his attempts to ignore that his actions directly violate principles he laid out before he became Attorney General.

“But before the inauguration,” I said, “both you and the president said that habeas should apply to enemy combatants.”

“I’m not sure I ever opined on that,” Holder said.

“I could read you a quote.”

Holder laughed uncomfortably.

“Here’s the quote: ‘Our government authorized the use of torture, approved secret electronic surveillance without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants,’ and a few other things.”

Holder was silent. “But I was talking about Guantánamo,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I was talking about Guantánamo.”

But I’m most interested in a fairly subtle moment, when a former White House official (it might be someone like Greg Craig) made it clear that Obama, not Rahm, made the decision to have the White House pick the venue for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial.

“It was wildly unfortunate,” says David Ogden, Holder’s former deputy attorney general. “The president gave that decision to the attorney general. The attorney general made it. Then the White House had to deal with a political reality in Congress. And the situation was assessed as being politically untenable.” Others are less forgiving, calling Obama’s capitulation an insult to Holder and a regression to the arbitrary policy of the Bush years. “There is an important principle at stake here,” Holder told me. “You don’t shy away from using this great system for political reasons. It hampers our ability as we interact with our allies if we don’t stand for the rule of law when it comes to a case that is politically difficult to bring.” Among Holder’s political allies, the blame for KSM lay not with Rahm but Obama. “Rahm was critical,” says one former White House official. “But the president ultimately made the call.”

The whole piece seems to lay out Holder’s angst as he decides to stick around after being stripped of his independence. Given this detail — the the President himself replaced justice with politics — he really ought to think seriously about regaining his principle by leaving.

As Axe Slams Rahm from One Side, Greg Craig Slams from the Other

I trust it’s not a coincidence that at the same time David Axelrod is skewering Rahm from within the White House, Greg Craig is getting picked up on a live mike (oops!) skewering him from the outside.

“The great thing about it, if Rahm goes to run for mayor, is that Eric survived,” Craig said, according to an audio recording of the Sept. 21 event.

The National Law Journal requested a copy of the recording from the law school, and the school provided one. The recording includes Craig’s speech and a question-and-answer session, as well as two and a half minutes of pre-speech banter between Craig and Trevor Morrison, a Columbia law professor who introduced Craig to the audience. They touched on Holder’s relationship with Emanuel and on the case of accused terrorist Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.

As Craig suggests, Emanuel’s departure would mean Holder will have outlasted an internal rival with whom, according to news reports, Holder has repeatedly clashed on subjects like the venue for trying terrorism suspects. And it would mean Emanuel wouldn’t be around to attempt to force Holder out if tensions flared again.

[snip]

A questioner asked Craig why he left. Craig responded that he did so for “a number of different reasons,” and then he focused squarely on Emanuel.

“One of the reasons was that I did not get along with the chief of staff well,” Craig said, “and I think that the coordination between the White House counsel and the chief of staff is vital to the success of the working of the White House.”

Though, I’d challenge Craig: What good has Holder’s outlasting Rahm done after Friday’s audacious claim to unlimited power? There’s no indication at all that Rahm was pushing Holder to submit a motion basically saying, “the President can kill any American, and he doesn’t have to show the Courts any justification for why, which is good because we can’t even make a good argument to support it.” I mean, sure, Rahm had a big hand in pissing away Obama’s bid to moral standing. But Holder’s DOJ has simply embraced the disdain for law that Rahm handed them and run with it, all on their own now.

The Things Bob Bauer Was Doing before Taking over Ethics

The White House Ethics Czar, Norman Eisen, has gotten himself nominated to serve as Ambassador in one of the greatest places on earth, Prague, Czech Republic. To replace the function of Ethics Czar, the White House has announced that White House Counsel Bob Bauer will take over, and Steven Croley (who worked on the campaign) will lead a team of six to oversee ethics.

Ethics wonks are mixed about whether this arrangement will meet the high standards Obama set when he came into the White House. POGO’s Danielle Brian takes Bauer’s appointment as a good sign that ethics will continue to be a priority. OMB Watch’s Gary Bass is happy the White House worked so quickly to implement a plan to replace Eisen. But Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller views the appointment of Bauer–who has a history of supporting bad ethics habits–as a setback.

This concern is magnified manifold when Eisen’s key successor – Bauer — can hardly be described as having the DNA of a ‘reformer.’  This is the man who invented the rationale for the acceptance of “soft money’’ – unregulated (chiefly corporate) funds that flooded elections to the tune of $1.5 billion between 1992 and 2002, and the man who sided with arch conservatives in their defense of lack of transparency.

[Update: CREW has concerns as well.]

I’ll leave it to the ethics wonks to decide whether Bauer can do the job–on ethics–well or not. And FWIW, the one time I’ve seen Bauer’s work close up (during an election-related suit here in MI in 2008), I thought he was the kind of fighter Dems need more of.

But I am worried about what this says about the Administration’s focus on two other critically important functions. You see, when Bauer took over for Greg Craig, he was hailed as the kind of guy who could solve two problems Craig had failed to: judicial confirmations and closing Gitmo.

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When Kagan Defenders Hurt Her Case

Greg Craig, who was ousted from the Obama Administration because he’s too much of a purist on archaic things like the Constitution, reassures us that Elena Kagan is largely a “progressive” in the mold of the guy who ousted him.

David Iglesias: Obama’s Used Car Salesman For Gitmo Show Trials

In January of 2009, right after Obama’s inauguration, there was a swell feel good buzz about the fact David Iglesias, the media darling face of Bush US Attorney Purgegate victimology, had been tapped to be part of a special team of prosecutors to bring sanity to the detention and prosecution of Guantanamo detainees. Iglesias said:

We want to make sure that those terrorists that did commit acts will be brought to justice — and those that did not will be released.

As with so many other facets of the nascent Obama Administration’s promise on the interests of justice, it appears to have been shiny window dressing for the same old story, same old song and dance. A year and change later the same duplicity, bad faith, and specious claims based on vapor and evidence from torture permeates the Obama handling of Gitmo detainees as it did under Bush and Cheney. That is not my conclusion, not that of the “far left progressives”, but that of impartial Federal judges like Henry H. Kennedy.

And today we have yet another reminder that nothing has changed. Iglesias, the photogenic exemplar of A Few Good Men is being walked out once more to shill for the return of Gitmo Show Trials. From Carol Rosenberg:

For hearings on whether U.S. forces tortured confessions out of a Canadian teenager accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan, the Pentagon Monday unveiled a new face to advocate military commissions:
Fired former Bush-era prosecutor David Iglesias, a key figure in the so-called Attorney-Gate scandal. He was mobilized last year to the war court as a U.S. Navy Reserves captain.
…..
Monday, Capt. Iglesias was part of a Pentagon prosecution team going to Guantánamo for up to two weeks of hearings on which, if any, of Omar Khadr’s confessions cannot be presented to a jury at his summertime trial.
….
The chief war crimes prosecutor, Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, is leading the Khadr team in court. So the Pentagon tapped Iglesias to brief 35 reporters leaving from Andrews Air Force Base on Monday for the remote U.S. Navy base in Southeast Cuba, a larger than usual number of worldwide media traveling to the base for this week’s hearings. Many are Canadian.

Earlier in his Navy lawyer career, Iglesias has said, he worked on a hazing case that became a basis for the Hollywood hit set in Guantánamo, A Few Good Men, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Since then he has emerged a telegenic critic of Bush era policies.

So there you have it, the white knight Iglesias is not leading the legal charge cleaning up the detention/Habeas cases and prosecution status of the rickety and ill defined military commission effort, he is serving as the used car huckster for the old status quo. I guess Cal Worthington and his dog Spot were not available.

Lest anyone mistake the cravenly serious nature of what is really at stake here, Iglesias is being trotted out to sell a return to military commissions with few established known standards, that have been scorned and blasted by a conservative Supreme Court and, just for kicks, the government is fighting tooth and nail – complete with Holywood Iglesias – for the admissibility of tortured confessions from a child, Canadian Omar Khadr, in a military tribunal to be convened at Guantanamo. Gitmo, the gulag Obama railed on while a candidate and promised to close within Read more

Koh v. Johnson: Material Support in Far Away “Battlefields”

I don’t know about you. But I’m sort of bored with the Holder v. Rahm fight over torture and Gitmo. My hope is they’ll start a military commission trial, it’ll get delayed and challenged, and Holder will be able to demonstrate in terms even Rahm understands that civilian trials are not just a question of politics–they are also clearly more efficacious.

Ah well.

Lucky for us, there’s a new debate to watch, this one between State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson, over whether Presidential wartime powers are limited to those actually in al Qaeda, or include those more loosely affiliated with the organization. As Charlie Savage describes, both have written secret memos advocating a position on the issue.

But behind closed doors, the debate flared again that summer, when the Obama administration confronted the case of Belkacem Bensayah, an Algerian man who had been arrested in Bosnia — far from the active combat zone — and was being held without trial by the United States at Guantánamo. Mr. Bensayah was accused of facilitating the travel of people who wanted to go to Afghanistan to join Al Qaeda. A judge found that such “direct support” was enough to hold him as a wartime prisoner, and the Justice Department asked an appeals court to uphold that ruling.

The arguments over the case forced onto the table discussion of lingering discontent at the State Department over one aspect of the Obama position on detention. There was broad agreement that the law of armed conflict allowed the United States to detain as wartime prisoners anyone who was actually a part of Al Qaeda, as well as nonmembers who took positions alongside the enemy force and helped it. But some criticized the notion that the United States could also consider mere supporters, arrested far away, to be just as detainable without trial as enemy fighters.

That view was amplified after Harold Koh, a former human-rights official and Yale Law School dean who had been a leading critic of the Bush administration’s detainee policies, became the State Department’s top lawyer in late June. Mr. Koh produced a lengthy, secret memo contending that there was no support in the laws of war for the United States’ position in the Bensayah case.

Mr. Koh found himself in immediate conflict with the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Jeh C. Johnson, a former Air Force general counsel and trial lawyer who had been an adviser to Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign. Mr. Johnson produced his own secret memorandum arguing for a more flexible interpretation of who could be detained under the laws of war — now or in the future.

Part of me actually wonders whether the debate stems at least partly from Johnson’s greater familiarity with whom we’re already keeping–which includes a bunch of people whose “material support for terrorism” is really quite tenuous. That doesn’t justify holding them, but this may be a question about whom we have already held for 9 years.

Still, the ramifications of holding those who materially supported al Qaeda are pretty ominous, given the fairly expansive notion this country has used to claim material support.

And meanwhile, David Barron–Dawn Johnsen’s stand-in–basically punted on this question, seemingly hoping that some judge who is not a radical Bush appointee will make the decision for him.

The Anonymous Coward Calling Holder Weak

Time has another one of those Rahm v. Holder profiles. It is notable from the slew of other ones for two reasons.

The anonymous source calling Holder a coward

First, the story features several main sources for this story: Lindsey Graham, speaking on the record.

Holder, issuing no-nonsense statements like this, on the record:

And it’s Holder’s experience in the law-enforcement system that makes him such a strong believer in its ability to put terrorists like KSM away forever. “We should have great faith in the resilience of our systems, the resilience of our people, the toughness that has always separated Americans from other peoples in this world, and that’s what’s made this country great,” he says.

And at least one anonymous White House aide (AKA Rahm).

What I especially love about about that anonymous White House aide is that the guy who is too chicken to speak on the record seems to be parroting GOP attacks calling Holder weak on terror.

Republicans, meanwhile, were busy turning Holder into the poster child for White House weakness on terrorism, and some polls showed that most Americans agreed with them. “The only two people who still believe in civilian trials,” says one of the meeting’s attendees, “are Holder and the President.”

Brave anonymous White House aide!! Singlehandedly fighting terrorism by hiding behind anonymity!!

Lindsey’s July (?) meeting with Holder and December meeting with Obama

The article also provides a useful timeline for two meetings Lindsey had with the Administration, first an July (or August) meeting with Holder.

By July, Obama had asked Holder to decide whether it was feasible to prosecute KSM in a civilian court. Holder chewed on that question for weeks. Meanwhile, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who opposed civilian trials, asked Holder to meet with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a key centrist vote on matters of counterterrorism. Graham told Holder he strongly opposed civilian trials for the alleged 9/11 conspirators and that they could affect his support for closing Guantánamo Bay prison, a key Obama goal.

And then a December meeting with Obama.

When Obama met with Graham in early December, the Senator laid out his case against civilian trials. But the President said he thought Holder had the better side of the argument. “I just agreed to disagree with the President on that issue,” Graham told TIME.

Those meetings are interesting both for the way they match up to the timeline of the attacks on Holder and Greg Craig (which started in earnest around the time of the first meeting, and culminated in the December meeting after Craig had been ousted.

I’d really love to know the logic for the Obama meeting. After all, this was before the Christmas day bombing, when the Administration was still basking in the success of the foiled Zazi plot. And it came at a time when the Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate.

So why meeting with Lindsey?

It sure suggests the push against civilian trials is more about politics than efficacy.

But we knew that.

The Latest Rahmlinology

I wonder how Greg Craig–ousted from the Administration because he tried to do the right thing on Gitmo–feels about this.

In December 2008, Obama, Emanuel and Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) met in Obama’s transition headquarters in Chicago to discuss detainee policy. According to Graham, Obama turned to him at one point and said, ” ‘I’m going to need your help closing Guantanamo Bay. . . . I want you and Rahm to start talking.’ ” They did, and as the discussions progressed, Emanuel grew wary that closing the U.S. military prison in Cuba was possible without opening a slew of other politically sensitive national security problems ” ‘This stuff is like flypaper,’ ” Graham recalled Emanuel saying. ” ‘It will stick to you.’ ”

Graham said Emanuel was well aware that his and any other Republican support for closing Guantanamo Bay hinged on keeping alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed out of civilian court.

According to a person familiar with the conversations, who discussed the confidential deliberation on the condition of anonymity, Emanuel made his case to Obama, articulating the political dangers of a civilian trial to congressional Democrats. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. presented a counterargument rooted in principle, for civilian trials.

The implication, of course, is that Rahm met with the two Republicans on his own. If so, at the very time Rahm was letting Lindsey Graham demand the shredding of the Constitution, Greg Craig was executing the ham-handed report that, though transparently lame, managed to free Rahm of the taint of Rod Blagojevich.

Rahm wouldn’t have survived into the first days of this Administration without Craig’s work. Some gratitude, Rahm.

And remember how one of the reasons why Craig was ousted was because he wasn’t consulting with Congress enough? Well, it sounds like that was a problem, for Rahm, because that’s how he fancied he’d control the process.

“During this whole civilian-trial debate, Rahm’s gut instincts knew that taking KSM to New York for civilian trials was going to be a misstep,” Graham said. “He has a better ear for domestic politics on this issue than anybody in the administration, quite frankly.”

With the Justice Department in charge, Emanuel tried to keep tabs on the process through Graham. “He’d say: ‘How’s it going? Did you tell them they were going to lose you?’ And in terms a sailor could understand.”

One administration official close to Emanuel did not dispute that Obama had overruled Emanuel on some key policy issues. “It’s not germane what the discussion was beforehand, what his idea was, because once a decision is made, he puts himself whole-hog behind it,” the official said of Emanuel. “It would be difficult for people to discern what his [original] position was.”

Except that it was not difficult at all. It has been clear since August that Rahm has been actively undermining Craig and Holder’s efforts to hew to the rule of law. Doing so, in fact, with the guy who lost the election in 2008, John McCain, who still behaves at every turn like someone trying to take down his political opponent. That’s who Rahm has been sleeping with in his efforts to thwart the rule of law.

No wonder we’re seeing so many artificial “Save Rahm!!” stories.

Mayer on Rahm

I first teased out Rahm Emanuel’s role in reversing Obama’s early efforts to reclaim our country from torture last July. In August, my comments at Netroots Nation focused on Rahm’s role in preventing accountability for torture. I kept tracking Rahm’s campaign to prevent accountability here, here, and here.

Today, Jane Mayer has an extended profile of Eric Holder that fleshes out what we’ve all known: Rahm’s the guy who killed accountability for torture.

Emanuel viewed many of the legal problems that Craig and Holder were immersed in as distractions. “When Guantánamo walked in the door, Rahm walked out,” the informed source said. Holder and Emanuel had been collegial since their Clinton Administration days. Holder’s wife, Sharon Malone, an obstetrician, had delivered one of Emanuel’s children. But Emanuel adamantly opposed a number of Holder’s decisions, including one that widened the scope of a special counsel who had begun investigating the C.I.A.’s interrogation program. Bush had appointed the special counsel, John Durham, to assess whether the C.I.A. had obstructed justice when it destroyed videotapes documenting waterboarding sessions. Holder authorized Durham to determine whether the agency’s abuse of detainees had itself violated laws. Emanuel worried that such investigations would alienate the intelligence community. But Holder, who had studied law at Columbia with Telford Taylor, the chief American prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials, was profoundly upset after seeing classified documents explicitly describing C.I.A. prisoner abuse. The United Nations Convention Against Torture requires the U.S. to investigate credible torture allegations. Holder felt that, as the top law-enforcement officer in the U.S., he had to do something.

Emanuel couldn’t complain directly to Holder without violating strictures against political interference in prosecutorial decisions. But he conveyed his unhappiness to Holder indirectly, two sources said. Emanuel demanded, “Didn’t he get the memo that we’re not re-litigating the past?”

That’s what human rights are to Rahm Emanuel–mere distractions, speed bumps on his road to nine wins or–in the case of health care reform–epic failure.

Where Mayer breaks real news in her description of Rahm’s role in preventing accountability is her description of why Rahm opposed so many of Holder’s decisions: because they offended Lindsey Graham.

At the White House, Emanuel, who is not a lawyer, opposed Holder’s position on the 9/11 cases. He argued that the Administration needed the support of key Republicans to help close Guantánamo, and that a fight over Khalid Sheikh Mohammed could alienate them. “There was a lot of drama,” the informed source said. Emanuel was particularly concerned with placating Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, who was a leading proponent of military commissions, and who had helped Obama on other issues, such as the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “Rahm felt very, very strongly that it was a mistake to prosecute the 9/11 people in the federal courts, and that it was picking an unnecessary fight with the military-commission people,” the informed source said. “Rahm had a good relationship with Graham, and believed Graham when he said that if you don’t prosecute these people in military commissions I won’t support the closing of Guantánamo. . . . Rahm said, ‘If we don’t have Graham, we can’t close Guantánamo, and it’s on Eric!’ ”

At Emanuel’s urging, Holder spoke with Graham several times. But they could not reach an agreement. Graham told me, “It was a nonstarter for me. There’s a place for the courts, but not for the mastermind of 9/11.” He said, “On balance, I think it would be better to close Guantánamo, but it would be better to keep it open than to give these guys civilian trials.” Graham, who served as a judge advocate general in the military reserves, vowed that he would do all he could as a legislator to stop the trials. “The President’s advisers have served him poorly here,” he said. “I like Eric, but at the end of the day Eric made the decision.” Last week, Graham introduced a bill in the Senate to cut off funding for criminal trials related to 9/11. [my emphasis]

All along Rahm’s campaign against Greg Craig and Holder he left complaint after complaint that they had ruined the relationship with Congress. This, I suppose, is what Rahm means: doing anything–even those actions dictated by international law–that offend poor Lindsey’s sensibilities is a mistake, tantamount to ruining the President’s relationship with Congress. And I guess Rahm is okay with that–ceding the President’s authority on national security and legal issues to Lindsey Graham.

And look what you get out of that: Lindsey in a snit, pouting that the Attorney General of the United States determined to try criminals in a civilian court. And in response, refusing to close Gitmo.

In other words, we can’t close Gitmo because Obama’s “crack” Chief of Staff has willingly ceded the authority of the Attorney General of the United States to one Senator from the opposing party, and that single Senator is pouting because the Attorney General might choose law over Kangaroo Courts.

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