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2006-08-14

Seymour Hersh: U.S. Helped Plan Israeli Attack, Cheney "Convinced" Assault on Lebanon Could Serve as Prelude to Preemptive Attack on Iran

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Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reports in this week’s issue of the New Yorker that Israeli officials visited the White House earlier this summer to get a "green light" for an attack on Lebanon. The Bush administration approved, Hersh says, in part to remove Hezbollah as a deterrent to a potential US bombing of Iran. [includes rush transcript]

Israel and Lebanon saw continued violence on the last day before a UN ceasefire. South Lebanon continued to come under intense Israeli bombardment Sunday. In the most lethal attack, fifteen Lebanese were reported killed after Israel bombed the village of Rachat. Meanwhile, Hezbollah launched more than 250 rockets into Northern Israel. It was the highest number of rockets Hezbollah has fired into Israel since fighting began. At least one Israeli was killed.

The past month’s violence broke out after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others. Israel rejected Hezbollah’s demand for a prisoner exchange, and launched a full-on attack targeting Lebanon’s vital infrastructure, including a power station, the main airport and scores of roads and bridges. An estimated 1,000 Lebanese have been killed and more than one million displaced. At least forty Israeli civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced under a daily barrage of Hezbollah rockets.

The Bush administration has openly backed Israel’s campaign. The administration resisted international efforts for a ceasefire and rushed arms to the Israeli military.

A major new article says U.S. support for the invasion of Lebanon has gone even further than we already know. That in fact, White House support for the massive bombing of Lebanon even predates the day those two Israeli soldiers were seized.

In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reports Israeli officials visited the White House earlier this summer to get a "green light" for an attack on Lebanon. The Bush administration approved, Hersh says, in part to remove Hezbollah as a deterrent to a potential US bombing of Iran. A government consultant said the Bush administration also saw the attack on Lebanon as a "demo" for what it could expect to face in Iran.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He joins us in Washington, D.C. His latest piece is called "Watching Lebanon: Washington’s Interests in Israel’s War." We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Seymour Hersh.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. Can you just start off by telling us what you know at this point of what Washington’s interests in Israel’s war are?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, when you say Washington, you have to talk about Dick Cheney. I can tell you pretty firmly that it’s his office. I guess you could say it’s sort of the home of the neoconservative thinking in Washington — some of his aides and the people close to him in the White House: Elliott Abrams, David Wurmser, others.

What I understand is this: our military, our Air Force has been trying for a year to get plans for a major massive bombing assault on Iran pushed through the Pentagon, pushed through the process. And there’s been sort of an internecine fight inside the Pentagon over just basically the idea of strategic war against Iran. They’re very dug in Iran. The Persians have been digging in for — what? — centuries and centuries. And the Marines and the Navy and the Army have said, No way we’re going to start bombing, because it will end up with troops on the ground. So there’s been a stalemate. I’ve written a lot about it.

And in this spring, as part of the stalemate, the American Air Force approached the Israeli Air Force, which as you know is headed by General Dan Halutz, who is an Air Force — I think the first IDF commander, the commander of the Israeli Defense Forces, to be an Air Force guy, and another believer of strategic war, and the two had a lot of interests. And so, out of these meetings in the spring became an agreement, you know, sort of we’ll help you, you help us, and it got to Cheney’s attention, this idea of Israel planning a major, major strategic bombing campaign against Hezbollah. And for — I can’t tell you where Bush is, but you have to assume he’s right with him. Obviously everything he’s done makes that clear.

Cheney’s idea was this, that we sort of — it’s like a three-for. We get three for one with this. One, here we’re having this war about the value of strategic bombing, and the Israeli Air Force, whose pilots are superb, can go in and — if they could go in and blast Hezbollah out of their foxholes or whatever they are, their underground facilities, and roll over them, as everybody in the White House and I’m sure everybody in the Israeli Air Force thought they could do, that would be a big plus for the ambitions that I think the President and Cheney have for Iran. I don’t think this president, our president, is going to leave office with Iran being, as he sees it, a nuclear threat.

The second great argument you have, of course, is if you are going to do Iran, you’re going to need — you can’t attack Iran without taking care of the Hezbollah missiles or rockets. They’re really rockets. They’re not independently guided. Even their long-range rockets that go a few hundred kilometers, you cannot attack Iran without taking them out, because obviously that’s the deterrent. You hit Iran, Hezbollah then bombs Tel Aviv and Haifa. So that’s something you have to clean out first.

And thirdly, of course, is if you get rid of Hezbollah and Nasrallah, why, you get rid of a terror — a man who’s considered to be, as somebody famously said, Richard Armitage, the "A-Team of terrorism."

So on that basis, there was a tremendous interest in Israel going ahead. There were meetings. There were an enormous amount of contacts. I should add, Amy, that of course — and this is reflected in the story — Israel doesn’t need the United States to know they have a problem with Hezbollah. And so, they were going to do something anyway. But it’s a question of timing, and that’s one of the big issues.

This summer, earlier this summer, there was — and late, I guess after the Israelis began their reoccupation — occupation of Gaza, after the first Israeli soldier was captured, a soldier named Shalit, I think, June 28th, after he was captured, the traffic, the signals traffic that the Israeli signals community gets showed an enormous amount of talk about doing something on the northern border. That is, on the border between Syria — I mean between Lebanon and Israel.

And so, on that basis, it was clear this summer, the next time Hezbollah made a move, and there’s been a cat-and-mouse game between Israel and Hezbollah for about six years, since the Israelis were kicked out or driven out by Nasrallah in 2000. It’s been cat-and-mouse. Both sides have been going against each other, nickel-dime stuff. And the next time Hezbollah made a move, the Israeli Air Force was going to bomb, the plan was going to go in effect. The move came very quick. It came about ten days after or twelve days after the first Israeli soldier was captured.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, his latest piece appears in this week’s issue of the New Yorker magazine. You say the Israelis told us it would be a cheap war with many benefits, quoting a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, sure. I mean, believe me, Israel thought, you know — I guess the only other time in history where you can look back on such misguided optimism or one of the more recent times was, of course, us going into Iraq. Shades of Iraq, deja-vu or however you want to put it. Israel was convinced it would be easy. The Air Force was going to go and clean them out.

There was another element, and you mentioned that in your intro and also in your news report. One of the things that struck me right away, as soon as I saw how Israel was bombing, and my instinct told me there was something there, because in one of the Air Force plans that I knew about but didn’t write about, one of the Air Force options for taking out Iran was, of course, shock and awe, a massive, massive bombing well beyond any of the nuclear facilities. Go hit the country hard for 36 hours, drive people into underground bunkers. Don’t target civilians, necessarily, but hit their infrastructure, hit the roads, hit the power plants, hit the water facilities.

And so, when they come out of their bunkers after 36 hours, they look around. In the American neo-con view, they were going to say to each other, "Oh, my god, the mullahs did this to us, the religious mullahs who run the country. We’re going to overthrow them and install a secular government." That was the thinking for the last year. That is the thinking for the last year inside some elements of the Pentagon, the civilian side, and also in Cheney’s shop.

So when you watch what Israel did in its opening salvo, the first targets, I remember vividly, was — and everybody should — they took out the civilian airstrip. They took away civilian — the ability to use aircraft to travel. They took out highways. They took out roads. They took out petrol stations. They basically isolated Southern Lebanon. But I think part of the reason they did so much damage to the infrastructure was they believed — and I think the Israelis have been very clear about it — that the Christian population and the Sunni population — don’t forget Hezbollah is Shia — would rise up against Hezbollah, and it would be a great feather in the cap, etc., etc., etc.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His latest piece is called "Watching Lebanon: Washington’s Interests in Israel’s War." We’ll come back with him in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Seymour Hersh. His piece in the latest New Yorker is called "Watching Lebanon: Washington’s Interests in Israel’s War." So, can you take us through the timeline, as you understand it, that started before the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, the meetings that were taking place?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, I don’t know an awful lot about it, because, obviously, this is secrecy cubed here in this town, Washington, this White House. I don’t even know how much Bush was involved in the direct planning. Certainly he’s carrying out the policy. The best guess I have is that this spring there was a tremendous fight in the Pentagon over a nuclear option for Iran, with the generals standing up, standing up quite a bit against this White House. And I think it’s a sign, I guess, of the perceived weakness, political weakness, of the Bush administration at this point. And nuclear option was taken off the table for Iran.

Iran’s underground. The nuclear facilities, the alleged nuclear facilities, I’ve also written, we can’t find any evidence of a significant weapons program. But in any case, they’re certainly doing research in Iran, and they may indeed have intentions, but they’re deep underground, buried under a lot of rock, 75 feet, etc. etc. We’ve all heard that. And at that point in the spring, when the nuclear option was gone and there was a lot of concern about how do you drive down 75 feet and guarantee knocking out a potential weapons system, it was then that our Air Force began to talk with the Israeli Air Force, because the Israelis have been shipped — we have sent them an awful lot of large 5,000-pound bunker busters. And they’ve done a lot of research into the idea of using two or three bombs on top of each other, etc.

And so, spring is when I began — I think you can really trace the American military involvement with the Israeli military. And the way it was described to me, eventually this talk, the planning between the two of them, the sharing of intelligence, which is sort of normal — we and Israel are very close, a lot of stuff is shared with their military and their intelligence service — eventually it bubbled up, is the way it came to me, into the Pentagon, into the top leadership, Donald Rumsfeld, and eventually got to Cheney, whose idea was, "Let’s push this. This is a great idea."

I’m not suggesting that Washington forced Israel to go more quickly than it wanted to, but I don’t think there’s any question that the Israeli Defense Force, the Air Force, was surprised by how quickly Nasrallah, Hezbollah moved into the business of capturing. As I said, the first Israeli soldier was captured in Gaza on June 28. There was traffic about going, heating up the north. But for Nasrallah to move on 12th of July was very quick. But it was agreed that the next step he made, whenever, and I think the best guess people had is it could have been as late as fall, September or October, that they would go. They went quickly. And people I talked with in Israel — I spent a lot of time in this story talking to people in Israel — one of the things that everybody remarked on was the quickness with which the Air Force moved, not that they didn’t have plans in effect, but it was very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about Elliott Abrams, and you talk about Donald Rumsfeld’s role.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, what’s interesting about Rumsfeld, because for the first time — and not everybody agreed, but people that — you know, I’m long of tooth, Amy, and I’ve been around this town a long time, and obviously, since 9/11, a lot of people talk to me. And for the first time, Rummy doesn’t seem to be on board, is what I’m hearing. Actually, somebody even suggested he’s getting a little bit like Robert McNamara. If you remember, McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who, under both Kennedy and Johnson, was a great advocate of the Vietnam War and its chief salesman, basically, one of its chief salesmen all during the '60s, and by ’67, he decided it wasn't winnable and ended up being shoved out and put in the World Bank.

Rumsfeld is very concerned about the 150,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq, who are potentially in a very untenable position. There’s no question Iraq’s lost. There’s a lot of question about what we’re doing in Afghanistan. We’re sort of 0-for-2 in those two. And so, Rumsfeld was not happy about this policy, about going in in a protracted war in Southern Lebanon with Nasrallah, because, of course —- I think Nasrallah is his own man. None of us really know. I think he decides what he wants to do. I don’t think Syria and Iran control him the way Washington, this White House seems to believe everything comes from Iran. You know, anybody who meets Nasrallah, as I have a couple of times, he’s rather formidable. In any case -—

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, when did you meet him?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, I’ve met him a lot. I mean, I’ve interviewed him. I’ve interviewed him in the New Yorker. And I just spent time with him over this winter.

AMY GOODMAN: In Lebanon?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, sure.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you describe your sense of him?

SEYMOUR HERSH: I think he believes in — he’s religious, in the sense that — I’ve met religious leaders, Archbishop O’Connell here in New York. One of these people who you really, you know — for an agnostic like me, you come away from a meeting with those people believing that there is something to this business of religion, because these people are so devout. He is very much a believer, Nasrallah, in his own religion, and he doesn’t have dead eyes. He’s got alive eyes, and he’s got humor.

The reason I started seeing him, I see intelligence people around the world and some of the intelligence people in the Middle East, when the Iraqi war began to start, they encouraged me to see him, on grounds that this guy has a better feel for what’s going on in Iraq, as a Shia — he’s very close to the Shia leadership, to Sistani, also to the Iranians, who have a lot of juice inside Iran. So just as a reporter, I would go see him, and we’d talk about mostly Iraq in the beginning, and obviously.

In any case, the whole point here is, Rumsfeld — to get back to Rumsfeld, there’s no question that Iran has enormous influence inside Iraq, dominated now by the Shia, Shia Iran, and I think Rumsfeld’s concern, I was told, is that a protracted war against Nasrallah will only cause the Iranians, in support of Hezbollah, to start squeezing our troops in Iraq.

And we’re — you know, as I say, it’s an untenable position in Iraq. And nobody quite knows — this government has no idea on how to get out, just like I don’t think the Israelis — you know, the same pattern you saw in Israel as you saw with this Bush White House going into Iraq: they were so sure of victory that they never looked at the downside. Actually, I quote somebody in this article in the New Yorker, a really high-level guy in one of the military services, saying, "You can’t get this White House to think about the downside of anything." And you saw that with the Israelis. They had no idea, once they got into the quagmire, of how to extract, except to add more forces and increase the death toll to themselves, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, you’ve also written about the U.S. rejecting overtures from Syria in dealing with the war on terror. Can you talk about that, as, of course, you can’t talk about Lebanon or Iraq with this administration without talking about Syria and Iran?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, look, this is an administration that still refuses to deal with people it doesn’t like. You know, I don’t know. When my children were in pre-nursery, you know, little boys will get into a fight, and the nursery school teacher would take the two little boys who were fighting and say, "You two shake hands and go back to the sandbox," and they would. And so we have a president that won’t talk to the Iranians, although they’ve wanted to, and there’s been a lot of stories written about that. And they won’t talk to the Syrians.

And I’ve obviously — maybe not so obviously, but I’ve interviewed the President of Syria, Bashar al-Asad, a couple of times. And one of the last times, with great pain he told me — I think he showed me, even showed me, he was — this was in 2005. He’s written letters to George Bush, saying, "Let’s get together. Let’s talk. We have a lot in common. We can help you. We and Iran basically both have more — we can do more for you in Iraq than any other country. Why aren’t you using us? We don’t need a Somalia on our borders. We’re not interested in chaos there." And this White House doesn’t believe it. And the letters weren’t answered, he told me. His ambassador here in Washington, Imad Mustafa, is absolutely isolated. All this talk that the White House has made, Condoleezza Rice, about having openings to Iran, to Syria, are just, you know — they’re not worth much. There’s been some low-level talk. Nobody has made any efforts.

Syria has, as I’ve written in the New Yorker years ago, was one of the biggest helpers we had after al-Qaeda struck us, because Syria is — the old man Asad, the father of the current president, hated Jihadism. He did not like the Muslim Brotherhood. They were his opponents. And he kept the best books going on the Muslim Brotherhood, which is very closely connected to al-Qaeda. In fact, we learned more about al-Qaeda from Syria after 9/11 than from any other country. Asad, the president, gave us thousands access — agreed to give us access to thousands of files. And I wrote a story, I think in '02 or ’03 for the New Yorker, in which I quoted a senior intelligence official of Syria saying, "We're willing to even talk about our support for Hezbollah with you. We want to see you win the war on terror."

So it’s been an amazingly horrific performance by this White House, which is of par. You know, I don’t think any of us — I certainly won’t breathe easy until we get to 2009, inauguration of a new president. But there’s just no question that if we were to approach Syria right now, something else I didn’t write at the time — that’s because I wasn’t writing about it —- I don’t think there’s any question that Israel was interested in talking to Syria in ’03, even about the Golan Heights, which is a tough issue for them, and -—

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Sy —

SEYMOUR HERSH: Let me finish this. And we discouraged Israel from doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

SEYMOUR HERSH: I don’t know. I guess we didn’t want our friends to talk to our enemies.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote in 2003 about the U.S. bombing of a convoy inside Syria that once and for all smashed the attempts of Syria to communicate with Washington.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it didn’t really. At the time, it did. But there he is again, the President of Syria, Mr. Asad, tried again and certainly in '05, the letter he sent me, I saw, had just been written. He was still trying to make contact with Washington, because, obviously, in his view, he had a lot to offer us about resolving the crisis in Iraq. And it's a crisis for Syria, too, in Iraq, because there’s now 400,000 or 500,000 Iraqi refugees living in Damascus and elsewhere, a couple hundred thousand now of Lebanese. And so real estate property has gone out of sight there.

The irony is that as much as we can’t stand Syria, for the first time in their life, the Syrians are getting an awful lot of foreign investment, because, you know, with the oil at $75 a barrel, all of the Gulf countries, which are — they’re just washed with money. They don’t know what to do with the money they’re making every day. And they don’t want to invest anymore in America, because some of them have contributed money to charities that have been put on a watch list by the United States. So there’s a fear in some of the Gulf countries that if they invest the hundreds of billions of dollars they’ve collected in Washington or real estate here, they might have the property seized for being aiders and abetters of terrorism, so they’re dumping money into Syria right now. They were dumping a lot of money into Lebanon, too, but not any more.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Parry writes at "Consortium News," that it was U.S. neo-cons who pushed Israel even further than Israel wanted to go around this issue of the attack of Hezbollah. Do you agree with that?

SEYMOUR HERSH: The Israelis I talked to said, "Look, you know, there might have been a question being pushed on timing, but Israel certainly wanted to go." I just don’t — Bob Parry was right in so many things back in Iran-Contra. I just don’t have the same information he does on that. But that there was certainly a decision that — I quote somebody as saying, we told them basically, "You know, guys" — in this article I quote somebody as saying in effect — the Americans telling the Israelis, "Sooner than later, we want this to happen before this president is out of office," — that is, taking out Hezbollah so you can take out Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a few months ago, you wrote the piece, "The Iran Plans: How Far Will the White House Go?" talking about the U.S. plans to bomb Iran. Where do you think the current situation now leaves the United States and the Middle East?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you can’t apply rationality to it, because I think it’s simply something Bush and Cheney want to do. As I said earlier, they want to take out Iran. They don’t want to talk to it. They believe it’s, you know, the axis of evil cubed. And so, frankly, my real worry is what’s going to happen — I think nothing’s going to happen before this election. That’s impossible. My real worry is what’s going to happen when George Bush is a lame duck. He’s talking about, privately now, so I’m told and so I’ve written, about Winston Churchill. If you remember, after leading England to war in World War II, he was turned out by the voters, and he wasn’t fully appreciated until years later. So I think he sees himself in the position of "I know I’m right. They don’t quite believe me. But I’m going to do the thing I think is right, the right thing. And maybe in 30 or 50 years, they’ll come to accept me for the great president I think I am." And so, that’s what we really have as leadership right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does Condoleezza Rice fit into this picture?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, my guess is that she was smart enough to know this going — this last trip she made to the Middle East, I’ve written that she didn’t want to go, because she knew she had nothing to offer anybody. And I think there was a story the other week in the New York Times that was, clearly she inspired to her people about how Cheney is plotting against her, and Elliott Abrams, when he was on the trip with her, he was constantly calling up the White House behind her back and filling them in.

You mention Abrams. Abrams is sort of the key intellectual player, I think, of this policy that Cheney’s involved in. He’s not in Cheney’s office. He works directly for the President as a Special Assistant in the National Security Council office, but there’s no question, his influence is enormous on this.

AMY GOODMAN: And Seymour Hersh, for young people who don’t remember Iran-Contra, can you just fill people in on who Elliott Abrams is, his history?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Elliott Abrams was one of the key players in this incredibly wacky scheme we had in the Iran-Iraq war of two decades ago. Between 1980 and 1988, Iran and Iraq fought each other, and we supported Iraq. We supported Saddam Hussein, the United States did, with a lot of secret arms, secret intelligence, even shipping him secret formulas that could be used to make biological weapons and chemical stuff and intelligence, etc, etc. And that was because of course, Khomeini — we had been kicked out of Iran, when our Shah, the Shah was overthrown.

We were terrified of the Shiite leadership there. And so, one of the plans, one of the schemes was, in the middle of all of this hostility, Ronald Reagan was so committed to the Contra War in Latin America, that is, defeating what he thought was a communist-led insurgency in Nicaragua in an election there, that he cut a deal to ship arms — let’s see. It’s complicated. They sold arms to Israel, which they were shipped, I think, into Iran. You help me out on this.

Anyway, the bottom line was that it was a policy that brought us into contact with Iran, secret trading. We were going to get weapons that were going to — the Israelis were going to buy weapons. Money was —- they were going to sell weapons to Iran. Money was going to be generated from that sale to support covertly, outside of Congress’s knowledge, to support aid for the opposition in Nicaragua that we favored -—

AMY GOODMAN: For the Contras.

SEYMOUR HERSH: The Contras, yes, and so there we are. It was totally a crazy policy. When it unraveled, it should have probably led to, in a normal process, an impeachment proceeding for Ronald Reagan, but by that time, he was — everybody understood he was — he wasn’t well with Alzheimer’s or whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that some of the weapons Hezbollah is using today could have come from that sale from the United States?

SEYMOUR HERSH: No. I think what’s happened is, if you really want to know, I think the best guess is, and again, this is — I quoted somebody to this effect, Vali Nasr, who is a professor at one of the Navy post-graduate schools, very competent guy. What really probably happened is this: once we made our move, the Bush administration and the French, to drive the Syrians out of Lebanon, that famous 1559 you always hear about — we always hear about 1559. We never hear much about UN Resolution 242, which called for Israel to go back to its original borders. Anyway, 1559 called for Syria to get out of Lebanon and Lebanon to take control, a civilian government come in and also take — disarm Hezbollah. That was what it called for. Well, of course, it’s impossible in Syria, because the Lebanese army is probably 50% Shia and very close to Hezbollah. It was — that’s an impossibility. And so — wait, I’ve lost my track of thought. What was I saying?

AMY GOODMAN: You were just saying that after —

SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, yes, I remember. I’m sorry, Amy. So what happened is, once it was clear that the White House and French were getting our way with the UN, and Syria was going to get out, which only could only be interpreted by Iran and by Syria and by Hezbollah, as the pressure was going to be on them to be disarmed — at that point, Iran really began to step up its support for Hezbollah, not so much in terms — yes, there’s always been close support of aid and arms, but they sent a lot of technicians into Hezbollah to help them dig and help them to improve their ability to mask what they were doing, hide their weapons, their launchers for their rockets, go deeper underground, build command and control bunkers, build a lot of facilities that fooled the Israeli’s intelligence.

The Israelis — some commando units did go into the war early on and hunter-killer teams, and they were completely bamboozled and hurt hard, because everything they thought would be in place was not. The intelligence stunk, and I think Iran, in the last 18 months, probably played a role in improving Hezbollah’s intelligence or its capability to withstand a bombing attack.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for joining us. His latest piece, "Watching Lebanon: Washington’s Interests in Israel’s War" is in this week’s issue of the New Yorker magazine.

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