Category Archives: U.S. Military

Loss of drone program a momentum shift for the CIA

The Daily Beast reports that the CIA’s drone operations are being shifted to military control. That doesn’t so much mean the CIA is losing the ability to launch strikes with the remotely piloted aircraft, but that they will have to liase with the Pentagon to do so.

The move is reportedly part of a larger shift in the administration to reign in and centralize the nation’s ability to launch targeted strikes across the globe.

The policy shift is part of a larger White House initiative known internally as “institutionalization,” an effort to set clear standards and procedures for lethal operations. More than a year in the works, the interagency process has been driven and led by John Brennan, who until he became CIA director earlier this month was Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser. Brennan, who has presided over the administration’s drone program from almost day one of Obama’s presidency, has grown uncomfortable with the ad hoc and sometimes shifting rules that have governed it.

 Cutting back on the CIA’s lethal operations is a shift in an agency culture that has, in the years since 9/11, seemed to be increasingly paramilitary in nature. Ironically, the newly-appointed director of the CIA, John Brennan, was historically the mastermind of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy – a policy that relied heavily on drones.

After the approval process for Brennan’s job as CIA director was rife with Congressional complaints about the lacking transparency of the administration’s use of drones, the executive branch seems to have received the message. With all American drone use coming out of the Pentagon, which falls under military and international law, the process for each strike will be uniform, if not more transparent.

The CIA, for its part, seems to be headed back into the shadows, serving as more of an ear and less of a fist for the American national security apparatus.

Moreover, Brennan has publicly stated that he would like to see the CIA move away from the kinds of paramilitary operations it began after the September 11 attacks, and return to its more traditional role of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

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U.S. Army researching hacker drones

The U.S. Army is soliciting input from the private sector for a new class of attack drone – one that does its damage with an antennae instead of Hellfire missiles.

The Army’s Request for Information, posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website, says they’re hoping to learn “what systems, capabilities and techniques currently exist, or could be modified, to provide UAS-based EW capabilities to include potential surgical/targeted EW techniques (with emphasis on successful completion of an Airborne Electronic Attack mission).”

It’s unclear from the RFI what types of targets such an aircraft would be used against, but here are two likely guesses.

First, as Iran rolls out its own, domestically-operated version of the internet, outsiders will likely find it more and more difficult to penetrate that country’s networks. After Stuxnet made Iran aware of their vulnerability to more standard forms of electronic attack (i.e. USB thumb drives), the U.S. may be working on a more creative method of hacking their networks. Such an attack would, no doubt, be chock-full of irony, as Iran has previously claimed they were able to bring down an American Sentinel drone by taking over its controls.

The more recent headlines about electronic warfare have had nothing to do with Iran, though. After the New York Times exposed a widespread hacking campaign based in China which included major network infiltrations within both American media and infrastructure-related companies, the U.S. might be beefing up its electronic warfare suite for a showdown with the Chinese.

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Did the Air Force violate Freedom of Information law when it took down drone strike reports?

An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Photo via Flickr.

The AirForce Times reported Friday that the U.S. Air Force has stopped publishing data on weapons releases from Remotely Piloted Aircraft – i.e. drone strikes – in their monthly activity reports on Afghanistan operations.

Last October, Air Force Central Command started tallying weapons releases from RPAs, broken down into monthly updates. At the time, AFCENT spokeswoman Capt. Kim Bender said the numbers would be put out every month as part of a service effort to “provide more detailed information on RPA ops in Afghanistan.”

The Air Force maintained that policy for the statistics reports for November, December and January. But the February numbers, released March 7, contained empty space where the box of RPA statistics had previously been.

Additionally, monthly reports hosted on the Air Force website have had the RPA data removed — and recently.

In other words, not only did the Air Force stop publishing their numbers on drone strikes, but they actively removed that data from previously published reports. The information is no longer available to the public, and the military made a distinct effort to remove it from the public domain. But under federal laws, there are very clear rules around what information can be public and what can be private.

Since the Freedom of Information Act came into effect July 5, 1967, information held by the government has been publicly available by default. As the FOIA website puts it:

Enacted in 1966, and taking effect on July 5, 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.

The Department of Defense, on their FOIA page, lays out the nine exemptions. Essentially, information that is exempt from public disclosure must be classified, pose a threat to national or operational security or invade the personal privacy of personnel, among other things. The law is very specific on these points, as they are the only reasons for which the government can withhold information from its people.

Granted, not all government information is readily accessible or published. The point of this law is not to burden agencies with the task of publicizing every action they take, but it is to make it possible for citizens to get information about their government, enhancing transparency and accountability. So while public officials don’t need to post their every action online, they are obligated to provide information when it is requested of them unless it falls under a specific exemption. Government information is public by default.

So when the Air Force took down the data on drone strikes and said – as the Air Force Times reports – “the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” it was removing data from the public record because it didn’t look good, not because it was exempt from release. The full statement seems to suggest the data was misleading because it reported only instances in which a drone used weapons and not the far more common instances in which drones were used only for surveillance.

“A determination found the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” CENTCOM said in the statement. “A variety of multi-role platforms provide ground commanders in Afghanistan with close air support capabilities, and it was determined that presenting the weapons release data as a whole better reflects the airpower provided in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kinetic events involving RPAs are the exception, with only about 3 percent of all RPA sorties over Afghanistan involving kinetic events.”

The Air Force could have added the total monthly number of RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] sorties [missions] to their report, which would have brought the number of kinetic events [drone strikes] into proportion with the total drone activity in Afghanistan. Perhaps then the public would be able to see that while these aircraft are doing damage and taking lives, they are also doing a lot of work collecting intelligence that benefits – and perhaps saves the lives of – troops on the ground. This would have addressed the Air Force’s concern that the data was disproportionately focused on offensive strikes and at the same time increased the transparency of the operations.

Instead, the Air Force omitted the number from their reporting and then went back into their old reports and stripped the already public numbers from there too, despite the fact that the information clearly was not protected under any of the FOIA exemptions. It is possible that the Air Force would release those numbers again in the face of a FOIA request, but the fact that they made the effort to actively remove already available data from the public domain seems to me a violation of the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, if not its letter.

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Trucker strike cuts NATO supply lines through Pakistan

Major NATO military bases
Border crossings used in NATO supply lines
Karachi, where NATO supplies are shipped for transport to Afghanistan

Transport lines into Afghanistan, providing NATO troops – including U.S. soldiers – with the supplies they need for day-to-day living, are in jeopardy after the private Pakistani drivers who have been bringing supplies from the Karachi seaport into Afghanistan began a strike.

The strike began in response to the government’s decision to require truckers to go through authorized companies to carry NATO supplies instead of making individual deals with the government-run National Logistics Cell, said Jehanzeb Khan, head of a transport workers union in northwest Pakistan. The companies pay the truckers less, said Khan.

He also claimed the government was not providing adequate protection to the drivers from Taliban attacks, and each truck had to pay corrupt security officials about $165 in bribes to pass through the Khyber tribal area on the way to the border.

These same supply lines have been broken before. In Nov. 2011, the Pakistani government cut off NATO supply after an airstrike-gone-wrong killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. That lasted over six months, during which time the supplies had to be shipped through Russia and Central Asia via a longer route which cost more than $2 billion extra over that period.

International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops are more concentrated in the eastern regions of Afghanistan, making the Pakistani supply lines ideal. But the Pakistani government, in what they say was an effort to reduce theft and disorder in the logistical undertaking of supplying the roughly 100,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, mandated the drivers go through officially approved companies in order to be hired for the jobs.

The drivers, however, call the regulation a government attempt to strip them of a decent paycheck. They say they won’t go back to work until the Pakistani government reverses the mandate.

Because the truckers are only loosely organized, not all have stopped working. Though no trucks were reported passing through the more northern Torkham Crossing Wednesday, according to an AP report, there were still supplies going through at Chaman, which is well-positioned to supply the large ISAF airbase just outside Kandahar.

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The Air Force has an intelligence problem: Too much of it

As the canopy of unmanned drones over the Middle East and elsewhere grows larger and more complex, the military faces an interesting problem. Before, if they sent a plane over enemy airspace to take pictures, there was a pilot in it. He was connected to that data, and knew what he saw. But when we’ve got hundreds of cameras in the sky without a corresponding human, we run into the problem. We have the data, but we can’t process it fast enough. Check this out, from The Economist:

During 2009, American drone aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan sent back around 24 years’ worth of video footage. New models being deployed this year will produce ten times as many data streams as their predecessors, and those in 2011 will produce 30 times as many.

The military can’t keep up, so they’re looking elsewhere for solutions. Their most recent stop: NASCAR. That’s right, AOL Defense says the guys who record thousands of people in multiple countries with flying unmanned vehicles are asking the guys who record people driving in circles for help.

Sports television has pioneered many of the techniques for marking and finding data in a video. For each NASCAR race they deploy a team of six or more data taggers, whose job is to watch the event and –with the help of directors — spot what’s interesting and immediately assign it a data tag. That lets directors quickly search through the video, pull the exciting crash, for example, pull it and do an instant replay or build a highlights video.

Real-time data tagging is a key way to get it done, but the Air Force doesn’t have six people for every one drone in the sky, and that’s what it would take. The technique could be integrated with others to provide a solution to getting through all this data. Other tips might come from Gordon Bell, the Microsoft researcher who is conducting an experiment on himself. Using the best technology available, Bell is recording every aspect of his life in real time.

Think about every moment of your day. Every text message, every tweet, email, phone conversation, real conversation, meeting, credit card transaction, everything. All of those are tangible data points that make up your life, and Bell is collecting his. Wired did a short profile on the project in 2009.

This trove includes Web sites he’s visited (221,173), photos taken (56,282), emails sent and received (156,041), docs written and read (18,883), phone conversations had (2,000), photos snapped by the SenseCam hanging around his neck (66,000), songs listened to (7,139), and videos taken by him (2,164). To collect all this information, he uses a staggering assortment of hardware: desktop scanner, digicam, heart rate monitor, voice recorder, GPS logger, pedometer, smartphone, e-reader.

Well according to The Guardian, Bell has the same data problem the Air Force does.

Dr Bell has now stored so much of his life on computer that he is in danger of forgetting how to remember. “I look at it as a surrogate memory,” he says. If he wants to recall something, he switches on and picks his way through days and months of information until he finds what he is after. It was all dreamt up at Microsoft’s Bay Area Research Centre in San Francisco, where Dr Bell works.

With video data, which isn’t easily searchable and is time-consuming to manually review, the problem is even worse.


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NYT offers a glimpse into Obama’s careful national security approach


In a doozy of a story, the New York Times offers a view of the decisionmaking process behind drone strikes, Guantanomo and the President’s secret ‘kill list.’

“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

Yet the administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.

“Their policy is to take out high-value targets, versus capturing high-value targets,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee. “They are not going to advertise that, but that’s what they are doing.”

Personally approving the nation’s sketchiest overseas kills would help explain all that gray hair.

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UAV pilot trainers discuss the implications of unmanned combat


In a rare instance of journalistic access to the pilots behind America’s drone war, GlobalPost discusses the differences between unmanned and manned combat. After Wired last month brought up the issue of access to drone pilots, GlobalPost got an interview with three pilots at Holloman Air Force Base, where the remote pilots are trained.

The pilots brushed off the common criticism that they are too removed from the battle to properly consider the lives they may be taking.

The pilots said that it’s not just their aircraft that are misunderstood. They’re well aware of a public perception that pilots like them simply push a button to blithely drop bombs on people they’ve never seen in countries they’ve never visited, all from the comfort of their US air base.

Pilots at Holloman said they’re not surprised the public may have such a view, since even some experienced flyers arriving for training here have mistaken ideas about what it’s like to be the human element in a UAV. After all, these guys walk out the door of their simulated cockpits and go home to their families at the end of a work day.

In fact, the pilots’ take on the differences between manned and unmanned flight hints that it might be safer for everyone. No rushed decisions, no over-defensiveness out of fear.

“Your visibility is like looking through a soda straw because you’re just looking at one thing at a time, based on the capabilities of the camera, whereas in a real aircraft you can look around very easily,” he said.

But a simulated cockpit has distinct advantages as well. These pilots, who have all seen combat duty themselves in manned aircraft, said the safety allows them to do their job more effectively.

“You’re going slow and you’re not worried about ejecting or the environmental factors you have in a manned aircraft, your ability to really concentrate on exactly what’s happening is much better,” Brent said.

Mike agreed. “You’re not in a rush to make a decision because you’re not pressured by fuel or speed or anything like that,” he said.


But Yosef Lapid, a professor at Mexico State University who studies terrorism, said the dangers of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) should be considered carefully.

“When you look at how the laws of war have emerged, there’s a sense that the underdog should have some decent chance of challenging,” he said. “I think these technologies violate that sense of justice.”

Lapid also worries about the long-term effects of using UAVs in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In all the countries where armed UAVs are flown, large protests have erupted among the civilian population, which has at times suffered enormous casualties.

“It’s important to ask that question … not only how many terrorists we’re eliminating but how many new terrorists we are creating,” he said.

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American supply routes to Afghanistan causing political weakness


As its relationship deteriorates with Pakistan, the U.S. has been forced to get creative in resupplying its troops in Afghanistan. Now the government must pay a higher cost — either diplomatic or monetary (the choice is with the Pentagon) — to keep troops fed.

The Diplomat explains:

The U.S. and NATO, having already anticipated problems with Pakistan, had been building up another set of overland supply routes from Europe through the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan, known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). By the time of the Pakistan cutoff, a bit more than a third of NATO cargo to Afghanistan went in via the northern route, slightly more than via Pakistan. The remainder goes in by air, which avoids any geopolitical complications but is far more expensive.

It’s not known how long Pakistan will keep the supply routes closed, but after an incident last year in which the U.S. killed three Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan shut off the border for ten days. U.S. officials say that with the NDN, and with large amounts of goods stockpiled in Afghanistan, they don’t anticipate any shortages as a result. Still, recent events have shown that the United States’ partners on the northern route may now try to take advantage of its increased dependence on them.

Uzbekistan has been a key partner on the NDN and an estimated 98 percent of overland traffic from the north to Afghanistan passes through the southern Uzbekistan border city of Termez. As a result, and despite the unseemliness of cooperating with one of the most brutal and repressive governments in the world, the United States has been strengthening its ties with Tashkent. Washington recently changed its policy which forbade sales of military equipment to the country because of its miserable human rights record. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Tashkent in October, said there had been “progress” on human rights and democracy in the country, prompting critics to claim that Washington was selling out its principles for the sake of access for its military.

The U.S. is now forced to rely on countries fundamentally opposed to American ideals. Uzbekistan has something of a human rights crisis, condemned just today by Human Rights Watch for torture and a corrupt justice system, among other things. Human Rights Watch said the U.S. has failed to address the former Soviet state’s failures for need of access.

“Driven by a short-term interest in Uzbekistan’s strategic importance … the U.S. and the (European Union) have failed to respond to Uzbekistan’s deepening human rights crisis,” HRW said in its report.

The U.S. could be using more air transport or alternate routes instead, but in the interest of keeping costs down, has opted to use more politically precarious routes. The Diplomat explains the options:

By the time of the Pakistan cutoff, a bit more than a third of NATO cargo to Afghanistan went in via the northern route, slightly more than via Pakistan. The remainder goes in by air, which avoids any geopolitical complications but is far more expensive.

Russia isn’t as essential a link as Uzbekistan – the coalition can bypass Russia by transiting through the Caucasus, across the Caspian Sea into Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan. But the Russian route is nevertheless easier and cheaper.

The added money would have a political cost back home, and taxpayers likely would rather not pay to airmail chemically preserved meatcakes to the troops. Americans would almost always rather read about atrocities in the paper than pay extra taxes to keep money out of the hands of those who commit them.

The bottom line is that without Pakistan as a suplly route, and even with it, Washington’s political power, foreign and domestic, will suffer. With taxpayer money flowing to the oppressive regimes they publically condemn and a very sensitive polticial string in the hands of a country on the other side of a nuclear missile shield only so America can continue to send its young men to attempt (in vain, some say) to stabilize the Graveyard of Empires, this can not end well.

Photo/Creative Commons/Defence Images

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Iran says it hacked, brought down a U.S. drone, provides no evidence

UPDATE (12/8/2011): Iran has released video footage of Iranian officials inspecting what appears to be the downed drone.

Iran’s media outlets claim the nation’s military took control of a U.S. spy drone and brought it down within Iran. They’re attributing the grab to an electronic warfare unit that hacked the drone’s remote operating controls and brought it down softly so that the high-tech spy plane was mostly intact when the Iranian military got their hands on it.

Despite these claims, there are plenty of reasons to doubt that Iran actually took over one of the U.S. military’s most advanced drones (the one they claim to have is an RQ-170 — a rare drone made by Lockheed Martin that is more advanced than its more widely-seen counterparts) and brought it into a controlled crash within their own borders. David Axe explains:

Iran frequently announces it has shot down U.S. surveillance drones, but has not, to our knowledge, produced any evidence of the kills. Even if Tehran did bag itself an American war ‘bot, it might not be an RQ-170. The editors at Press TV undermined their credibility by running  the story with a photo of an entirely different drone than the Beast of Kandahar.

Equally dubious is Iran’s insistence that the RQ-170, if that’s what it is, was forced down largely intact by an Iranian army “electronic-warfare unit.” The implication is that the Iranians somehow jammed the command signal beamed to the drone by remote operators.

That’s a pretty big deal, if true. The Predator and Reaper, America’s most numerous attack and surveillance drones, are remotely-controlled via radio link by a pilot on the ground. If the link is broken, they’re designed to enter a holding pattern or even return home. But these failsafes aren’t perfect, as the Air Force discovered in 2009 when a Reaper drone went haywire and had to be shot down by an F-15. The Air Force and Navy have admitted that the control link represents a critical weakness and have worked hard to make drones more autonomous.

It’s not hard to be skeptical of a nation making claims that they’ve achieved something that the public isn’t even sure is technically possible, especially when said nation’s reputation for telling the truth is as tarnished (to put it kindly) as Iran’s. As tensions between the U.K. and Iran boiled over last week and the west is increasingly concerned about the country’s nuclear program, Iran’s claim to have shot down the drone could be an attempt to paint themselves as victims of western oppression — “We just want to have a clean, secure energy future and these allied nations to the west are coming down so hard on us it’s impossible.”

There hasn’t been any retaliatory action so far, but an Iranian official is quoted in The Washington Post as hinting at offensive action in retaliation to the discovery of the spy drone.

Hours after the incident, Iranian state TV news was showing only stock pictures of RQ-170 stealth drones, not images from the crash. An unnamed military official told the Fars News Agency that Iran’s response “will not be limited to the country’s borders.”

As Axe says above, those weren’t even the right drone photos.

If, however, Iran’s story is true, the loss of this intact technology could seriously limit the effectiveness of the RQ-170 in Iran and elsewhere, should the country’s military go public with specifications.

U.S. officials have given only vague information about the drone, its mission, or its status:

The U.S. military released a short statement later Sunday on the missing drone. “The [unmanned aerial vehicle] to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week,” it said. “The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.”

With a no photos, doubt that what Iran claims is even possible, and U.S. officials giving only vague information about what happened, the validity of Iran’s claims cannot be confirmed by anyone but Iran itself.

As we say here on the world wide web: Pics or it didn’t happen.

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As U.S. restricts access to drone base, public loses sight of program’s humanity


As America’s aerial drones make headlines, their operators — mostly working from a base in Nevada — don’t. An increase in security at Creech Air Force base over the last two years has left reporters outside the gates. With almost zero public access to drone operators, these menacing, faceless machines have been forced to speak for themselves. And they’re not known for their charm.

Wired Danger Room explains that access to the Air Force base has been more and more restricted due to new approval protocols for press seeking the once-common interim security clearance into the base. The new protocol causes the vast majority — if not all — of press requests to be denied.

The problem with this is that it almost completely removes the most important people in the drone war from the public eye.

What was lost? In a 2009 Frontline episode, we could drive to work with the pilot who prays for strength and wisdom. 60 Minutes caught the flicker of doubt in the eyes of the pilot confronted with the question, “What if you get it wrong?” Never mind the myth of the efficient killing machine. There are people who make the decision of whether to pull the trigger. There are stories to be told about these airmen who have the power over life or death.

When the U.S. launched this program in 2007, it welcomed journalists with open arms to help spread the word about the new technology. But about two years later, this access started fading.

Press visits to Creech were all but phased out in 2010. “Creech was unable to support media requests during this timeframe because of a high operations tempo and post 9/11 security concerns,” said Creech spokesperson Lt. Katherine Roling.

The increased operations tempo is understandable. With more ground troops in Afghanistan in need of support after Obama sent thousands more troops to secure the “graveyard of empires.”

Post 9/11 security concerns? Unless there was an event on Sept. 11, 2008 or 2009, she must be talking about 9/11/01, which was six years before the program launch and nine years before the tightened security.

Perhaps there is another reason reporters aren’t getting into the base.

Ironically, just as press access to the ostensibly open military drone program wound down, the government began to speak more and more about the supposedly super-secret CIA drone war. In 2009, then-CIA chief Leon Panetta declared that drones were “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.” By the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the Washington Post wasdescribing the whiteboards used to keep track of pending operations and informants in the region. The CIA’s former top lawyer, John Rizzo, told Newsweek about the group of 10 agency lawyers who granted “approval for targeting for lethal operation.”

Perhaps the images on operators’ screens and burned into their memories at night are ones the military and CIA would rather keep from civilian television and computer screens.

As mission secrecy and operational security are clearly paramount, restricted access to the base is understandable from a military and intelligence standpoint. The casualty is the only link in the chain of command that reminds us that behind these buzzing death machines have a human behind them. A human who sees and feels and knows that under his/her finger is a life, who must decide if that is a life worth taking and then live with their decision.

Without the flicker of doubt in a pilot’s eyes, it’s hard to be sure there really is anything human between the massive military system and those weapons high in the sky.

Photo/Creative Commons/Flickr user CliffStreetPhotography



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