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Should Impeachment Be Off the Table? A Debate with Peace Mom Cindy Sheehan, Ex-CIA Analyst Ray McGovern and Democratic Strategist Dan Gerstein

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Peace mom Cindy Sheehan has returned from a brief rest to take part in a growing movement for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Impeachment activists have focused efforts on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Chair John Conyers, who have declared impeachment off the table. The Democratic leaders call the impeachment drive a distraction that would hinder chances at winning the 2008 elections. Cindy Sheehan joins us for a debate along with ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern and Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: At least 45 people were arrested on Capitol Hill Monday in a sit-in calling on Democrats to pursue the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. The demonstrators were jailed after refusing to leave the office of House Judiciary Chair John Conyers, following a meeting with him. Conyers had floated the idea of impeachment last year. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed the talk during the midterm elections when she declared impeachment off the table.

Among those arrested on Monday was Cindy Sheehan. It was less than two months ago that she announced she was stepping down as the face of the country’s antiwar movement. She cited the draining lifestyle and the lack of public will for ending the Iraq War. Well, Cindy Sheehan is back. She arrived in Washington Sunday following a two-week cross-country march dubbed “The Journey for Humanity and Accountability.” The tour began in Crawford, Texas. It was there she had set up the peace camp next to President Bush’s Crawford estate two summers ago. She named it Camp Casey in honor of her son Casey Sheehan, killed in Iraq in Sadr City April 4, 2004.

Shortly before her arrest on Monday, Cindy Sheehan confirmed she’ll challenge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her congressional seat in the next election, unless Pelosi agrees to begin the impeachment process against the president and the vice president.

Although it’s rarely discussed in the corporate media, a grassroots movement for impeachment has been rapidly building. A recent poll by the American Research Group found about 45 percent of the country supports the U.S. House of Representatives beginning impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill 15 co-sponsors have signed onto Congressmember Dennis Kucinich’s bill of impeachment against Vice President Cheney, and more than 80 towns and cities have passed pro-impeachment resolutions.

Today, we’ll look at the impeachment movement. Cindy Sheehan joins us in our New York studio. We’re also joined here by Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein. He’s a former aide to Senator Joseph Lieberman and a regular columnist at the website Politico. He recently wrote a column entitled “Impeachment Question Divides Democrats.” Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern also joins us from Washington. He was arrested along with Cindy Sheehan Monday at Congressman Conyers’s office. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, or VIPS.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Cindy Sheehan, first, well, I spoke to you when you announced your basically retirement as the public face of the peace movement in this country. What happened?

CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, you know, and on your show I did say that we were almost doing this like closing up a factory, retooling, and were going to come back stronger and in a new direction. We didn’t plan on coming back with our new organization, People for Humanity, until August. We’re going to Jordan and Syria to visit Iraqi refugee camps to expose those crimes against humanity of the Bush administration. The refugee crisis in the Middle East is a disaster. It’s a humanitarian crisis. And when George Bush pardoned Scooter — I mean, commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence, we came back sooner than we expected, and we started our journey on July 10 from Crawford, symbolically walking away from that part of our activism to a new part. And I announced before we left that if Nancy Pelosi didn’t put impeachment on the table, I would run against her as an Independent in California’s 8th.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have announced?

CINDY SHEEHAN: We announced informally right after the meeting with John Conyers on Monday. And I will announce formally next week from the district.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you feel impeachment is so important?

CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, you know, like Dan said, why don’t we elect a Democratic president in ’08, and they take office in ’09? Hundreds of our soldiers, thousands of Iraqi people will be killed by then. There will be the least chance for stabilization of the Middle East if we wait that long.

I believe that impeachment is necessary to restore rule of law to this country, but to also in the future prevent abuses of executive power. And when Dan said that it would harm Democrats’ chances for taking over the White House, that’s not even historically correct. And in my lifetime, we’ve had two impeachment proceedings. And Clinton’s impeachment, although he was impeached in the House and he wasn’t found guilty in the Senate, a Republican took office the very next term. And after Nixon, a Democrat took office in the very next term. So if our congresspeople step out in humanity and do the right thing, instead of the politically expedient thing, where —

We took over a million signatures to John Conyers on petitions demanding impeachment, while we were there, he was getting one call every 30 seconds. And we know that the majority of the country wants Dick Cheney impeached, and almost a majority wants George Bush impeached, so I think we would stand behind them.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Gerstein, you’re the former aide to the Independent senator of Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman. You now write for Politico, the website. Your thoughts?

DAN GERSTEIN: Well, I think what the impeachment movement has done is produced a very strong indictment of the Bush administration’s record, from the disastrous war in Iraq to the NSA surveillance program to the damaging, incredibly damaging, work they’ve done to our standing in the world. What I don’t think they’ve done is provided a compelling case or compelling evidence that President Bush has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.

I think we have to ask ourselves two important question if we’re going to pursue impeachment: Is there a strong case that they committed high crimes and misdemeanors? And secondly, and more importantly, I think, is, is it going to be in the best interest of the country, our government and the American people?

I think on the latter question, as I said in your billboard, the most important thing Democrats can do to take the country in a new direction and repair the damage that the Bush administration has done is to retake the White House in 2008.

My personal feeling, I think a lot of the feeling of a lot of Democrats who are very angry at the Bush administration, nonetheless believe that an impeachment proceeding, A, will not be successful. You need a minimum of 16 Republican senators to convict the president. That’s just not going to happen. It’s completely unrealistic to think on the evidence that we have now that we’re going to be able to convict George Bush.

Then, so what is the cost of engaging in that process? Not only will we not be doing the work of the American people for a long time, you know, any chance of ending the war in Iraq, dealing with healthcare, dealing with a range of issues that are important to the progressive community, completely off the table for the next year. More importantly, I think what it will have — the political effect it will have will be to galvanize the Republican base, energize them and really take away a lot of the advantage the Democrats have right now, in large part because the Republicans are split and dispirited. What that does, in essence, is make the 2008 election potentially a jump ball and put at risk our chances of taking the White House back.

AMY GOODMAN: Cindy Sheehan?

CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, also in Article II, yeah, Clause 4, it says for treason and bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors. I believe that — and there’s, you know, legal proof out there that when he commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence, he committed treason, because Scooter Libby was convicted of obstructing justice in the cover-up of the Bush administration outing Valerie Plame. And I believe that the American people will be behind this.

The Democrats aren’t trying to end the war. They just gave George Bush $120 billion more to wage it. And he has said the troops aren’t coming home while he’s president. So I think we need to look at it as human-based and not political.

John Conyers told me in a meeting previously to the one we had on Monday that winning the presidency in '08 was more important to him than ending the war in Iraq. When are our leaders going to — I guarantee there's 150,000 mothers in this country, who it’s more important to them to end the war in Iraq and get their children home safely than who’s president in ’08.

And I think, historically, when this impeachment has been tried, like I said before, the party who tried it, even though it hasn’t been successful, has — it has galvanized the base of that party to say, “Wow, our leaders are courageous. Our leaders have integrity. Our leaders are leading us from a moral base, not from political expediency.”

DAN GERSTEIN: Can I just respond to that point real quick? Because I think there — this goes to the heart of my argument, which is that in 1998, as a matter of fact, that the impeachment effort by the Republicans, which did not have the support of the American people and was completely unjustified, helped galvanize and outrage the Democratic base and then the turnout, so that the first time, I believe, in history, that in the sixth year of a two-term president, the president’s party picked up seats in a congressional midterm election. That just hasn’t happened in American history, and most analysts attribute that to the fact that the Republicans went against the will of the American people and went on this witch hunt against Bill Clinton. So I think that historical parallel suggests to me that there’s a real risk, if Democrats overreach and pursue of a quixotic impeachment process against George Bush, that it will help galvanize the Republican base in a similar way.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan, do you think that the Democrats should have tried to impeach Nixon?

DAN GERSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. And I think there was clearly a much more compelling case that Richard Nixon committed high crimes and misdemeanors on the public record, A; B, the American people believed it, which is not an insignificant part, because no matter what the evidence is, this is a political process, as Cindy knows. And ultimately, you have to have public will on your side, or you have to be able to bring public will to your side. And I don’t think, in the last year to 18 months of the Bush administration, we’re going to be able to pull the American people to a point where they’re going to see this as an effort to oust a president who has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, rather than a partisan thing, because this will become very, very partisan.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion. And we’ll also be joined by the former CIA analyst Ray McGovern. Cindy Sheehan is our guest, along with Dan Gerstein. He writes for Politico website.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re having a debate on impeachment, whether the Democrats should try to impeach President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Our guests are Cindy Sheehan, co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace; Dan Gerstein, Democratic strategist, political commentator, regular columnist at the website Politico; Ray McGovern is with us in Washington, D.C., the 27-year career CIA analyst, co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

Ray McGovern, weigh in here. You’ve heard Dan Gerstein say this is impractical, that Democrats should be doing the people’s business and not get waylaid by impeachment. Cindy Sheehan disagrees. You also got arrested at John Conyers’s office.

RAY McGOVERN: Yes. Amy, I’d have to profess some unaccustomed humility here before the task: I feel a lot more comfortable talking about communist regimes that have long since imploded than I do about constitutional issues in this country. That having been said, what Cindy says makes a lot of sense to me. It seems to me the argument is between what is politically expedient and what is constitutionally faithful.

The Constitution doesn’t make any bones about it. There’s no subjunctive mood in what Section 4 of Article II says. It says the president, the vice president shall be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Now, if people don’t realize that there have been high crimes committed by this administration, well, I don’t know where they’ve been. Maybe here I can talk with some authority. I’ve watched the intelligence being manufactured, being forged, being misrepresented, being made out of whole cloth to justify an unjustifiable war. It’s documentarily proved. We have the Downing Street minutes. We know that Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law told us in 1995 that all those weapons had been destroyed, and everything he told us turned out to be true. We had recruited — that is, my colleagues, my former colleagues — had recruited the acting Iraqi foreign minister, a fellow who was working for Saddam Hussein ostensibly but who had been turned to work for us. When we told the President that the foreign minister said there were no weapons of mass destruction, the President yawned and said, “Well, thank you very much. That’s all I need to hear.” And they left with the admonition, “Please, no more about weapons of mass destruction from this source. It’s about regime change.” So the evidence is compelling that high crimes have been made.

And so, what does the Constitution require? Well, this is not, as I say, subjunctive. It’s indicative here. The Constitution requires impeachment for such crimes and misdemeanors, and it’s Conyers’s job to initiate those proceedings.

Now, when I asked John about that — I gently tried to remind him about that with as much humility as I could summon, given his experience — he said, “Oh, you know, there have been so many high crimes and misdemeanors around here that that’s all my committee would end up doing the whole time, is impeaching people.” Well, that’s not right. That’s sort of reductio ad absurdum. That’s a rhetorical technique that reduces everything to its most absurd.

What needs to happen here is the Democrats have to sort of wake up and say, “Look, we have a duty. We swore an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States. This is what the Constitution calls for. And we need to do it for basically two reasons. Number one, that no president will ever be allowed to act like a king again.” I mean, after all, that’s why the founders put impeachment in the Constitution six separate times. They came out of that English experience, where kings would march people off to war for their own good, of course, but with their having no say. And so, the framers of our Constitution were hell-bent and determined to put in, very upfront, that no president would have the authority to do this without the explicit approval of the Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Dan Gerstein a question. What do you think — what would you believe would be a reason to impeach President Bush?

DAN GERSTEIN: He’s done something that is extra-constitutional. He’s done something that has completely compromised the trust of the American people to the point that he is no longer fit to be president.

You know, part of the problem I have with what Ray has been saying, which is he makes some very appealing and compelling arguments to a point, but I think this idea that the Constitution requires impeachment is deeply flawed, in large part because there is this presumption among people who favor impeachment that the evidence is airtight. I’m sorry, it’s not airtight. It hasn’t persuaded me, and I want George Bush to go. You have a whole rest of the country that doesn’t feel as strongly, that is not as well informed and, you know, and again, this is a political process. And in a certain sense, the court is not just the Senate. It’s the American people. And I think a lot of the evidence that Ray and people in the impeachment movement have assumed shows impeachable offenses was presented to the American people before the 2004 election, and they still reelected George Bush. And I think you can’t write that off.

I think the other point to make that’s very important is, this is not just a question of political expedience. I think that is an unfair assertion to sort of minimize and marginalize people who agree with Ray and Cindy that George Bush has been a disastrous president. But there’s a real cost here to undergoing impeachment, and that would divide the country and split the Democratic Party and really, I believe, undermine our ability to — like I said, the most important thing the Democrats can do right now to take the country in a better direction, repair that damage George Bush has done, is to retake the White House.

And then, this question about polling, I’ve talked to four leading pollsters — two Democrats, two Republicans — about the ARG poll, as well as other polling, which has usually shown impeachment somewhere between, I’d say, 35 and 40 percent among American people. Their belief, very strong belief, and interpretation of that data is that it shows an exhaustion, a fatigue with George Bush. The American people want him to go. And that’s the extent to what that shows, that once you pushed people and said this is what impeachment is, this is what the burden is, and this is what would happen to the country, their belief is those numbers would go down dramatically.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the difference between Nixon and Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Bush and Iraq?

DAN GERSTEIN: Richard Nixon was not impeached for Cambodia. He was impeached for obstruction of justice and crimes to cover up actions he’s done that were about self-aggrandizement, about his personal power. I’ve reviewed a lot of the, you know, supposed evidence or charges against George Bush. Regardless of whether they were bad for the country, they were not about consolidating his personal power. They were not for — to protect his — you know, not about his self-interest. And I think that’s a major distinction.

AMY GOODMAN: Cindy Sheehan.

CINDY SHEEHAN: I think we have this as our fundamental difference. We do believe that it was to consolidate power. We believe that — you know, I know that Richard Nixon — doesn’t matter if I believe it or not — was impeached for using his power to punish enemies. That’s what they did to Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame. George Bush has broken the Supremacy Clause Article VI. George Bush has broken the Eighth Amendment authorizing torture, the Fourth Amendment by imprisoning people without their due process. He’s taken away our rights to habeas corpus. He adds signing statements to every law he disagrees with. It’s about consolidating all power in the executive branch. And impeachment is about restoring our system of checks and balances.

DAN GERSTEIN: But, I guess, at the end of the day, will that effectively restore the rule of law to try to impeach George Bush? If it fails, I’m concerned about the precedent it sets if it fails. It —

CINDY SHEEHAN: Congress has been busy giving away their power to George Bush for the last seven years.

DAN GERSTEIN: Well, that’s something —

CINDY SHEEHAN: They gave away their power to declare war. They gave away their power to write laws. And he has taken the Supreme Court’s power to enforce these laws. And I think that, yes, I think that if Congress steps up and does one thing that is constitutionally correct, it will go a long way to restoring the balance of power.

DAN GERSTEIN: But I think, Cindy — one thing we can definitely agree on is that Congress has been too timid in holding the Bush administration accountable. I don’t think, though, that that justifies going to the compensatory extreme of an impeachment process.

And to go to a point Ray raised about deterrence, which is an argument that you hear over repeatedly from the impeachment movement, I think, you know, what happened with President Johnson in Vietnam and then Richard Nixon and now George Bush, this idea that, you know, by just beginning impeachment proceedings against George Bush you’re going to deter future presidents from engaging in similar actions, I think it is just unrealistic, because, you know, the Nixon case proves it. If you’re comparing George Bush to what Nixon did, the fact that there was an impeachment proceeding begun against him — he was forced to leave office — that had a deterrent effect, I just think that’s not going to happen. Future presidents, if they believe what they’re doing is in the interest of the country, which, you know, frankly, I think a lot of people in the Bush administration believe it is, whether that is true or not, is — they’re not going to be deterred.

CINDY SHEEHAN: I think if Congress had impeached Ronald Reagan for Iran-Contra, we might have had a deterrent effect. I think that if we don’t impeach George Bush and Dick Cheney, they’ve made a mockery of the Constitution, they’ve trampled on it. If we don’t impeach them, take out the clauses or just — we’ll just forget we have a Constitution and a representative republic.

AMY GOODMAN: Ray McGovern, what would an impeachment look like? What exactly do you feel that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney — and with this happening at the same time — be charged with?

RAY McGOVERN: Well, Amy, I had the good fortune to be at the House Judiciary Committee session at which the three articles of impeachment were voted against President Nixon. I waited for four hours around the block, finally got in. My luck was that I was there when it happened.

There were three charges, one of which George Bush has already admitted to, and that is illegal wiretapping. He’s bragged about it. He has said that he’s reauthorized that program 30 times. It’s clearly against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and it’s against the Fourth Amendment, and a federal judge out there in Detroit has said so. So that’s one.

Subpoenas, defying subpoenas. That was another charge against President Nixon. So even if you’re not going to go for the real charges, the felonies, the high crimes of starting wars on false pretenses, you’ve got these slightly lesser abuses that you could simply begin with and say, “Well, now, Mr. President, you admit having authorized this illegal wiretapping. What was that all about?” Now, there’s a lot of stuff going on about all that right now in Washington, but they’re going after the small fry.

And meanwhile, as Cindy points out, people are dying. People are dying every day. Eight Americans died today. And when people come up to me and say, as one has, “Look, Mr. McGovern, we need the oil, don’t we?” I say, “Yeah, we do.” He said, “Well, you know, I have to admit that eight GIs on a given day is a pretty small price to pay for the oil that we need. After all, in Vietnam we had maybe 20 or 30 killed every day.” Well, you know, I think subconsciously, Amy, I think subconsciously that’s the way a lot of Americans feel. They’re susceptible to this appeal to watch for our way of life. That’s what they’re after. They’re after our way of life. And so, we have to get real. And we have to say, “Is it worth sacrificing the lives of eight young men and women on a given day so that we can pretend to have some rights to the oil that happens to lie under the sands of Iraq?”

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Gerstein?

DAN GERSTEIN: Well, I think what Ray just said kind of reveals what’s at the heart of the impeachment movement, is it’s not a constitutional movement, it’s a political movement. And it’s an effort to stop the war. Now, I admire the principle behind that. They feel that this war is so disastrous that they will do anything to stop George Bush from continuing it. I just think that is not a compelling argument to start this extremely, extremely rare — and purposely extremely rare — process of trying to remove a sitting president, and not just remove a sitting president, but remove him less than 18 months before his term is up.

And, you know, I think that people who support impeachment have to step back and sort of say, “Is this realistic?” A; B, “Will it accomplish the goals they want?” B; and C, more importantly, “Will it stop the war?” And I don’t think it will. I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that by going on this move, which I think will actually galvanize the Republican Party behind President Bush when his approval ratings are so low right now they’re all running away from him.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dan, let me ask you something. You’re the former aide to Senator Lieberman. Senator Lieberman is one of the chief voices for this war. He’s not calling for it to end.

DAN GERSTEIN: He is not calling for it to end.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts? Do you disagree with him?

DAN GERSTEIN: You’re asking me my personal view? I think the war was a mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: Cindy Sheehan.

CINDY SHEEHAN: You know, Amy, there are so many constitutional experts who say that impeachment — you know, we are — you know, we do have a heart. We do love our soldiers and the people of Iraq. But the Center for Constitutional Rights, Bruce Fein, a Republican, so many constitutional experts are calling for impeachment and saying it’s constitutionally correct, you know? And just because Ray and I have hearts and want the killing to stop doesn’t mean we also don’t have brains and think that this is, you know, exactly constitutionally correct.

AMY GOODMAN: So how are you planning to execute this? How is this movement moving forward?

CINDY SHEEHAN: We have to get the — I think it was brilliant on Monday. The American people spoke, and we spoke loudly with over a million signatures, calls to Congressman Conyers’s office, calls to Nancy Pelosi’s office. And we need a true people’s movement in this country, people who will govern us for the people and by the people, not for the corporations and by the corporations. And I think that’s what is stymieing Congress right now. It’s who they’re beholden to. So I think people need to run against Republicans and Democrats alike, if they’re not representing the people. So it has to be a true people’s movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Ray McGovern, you’re the former CIA analyst who was a top briefer for President Bush — that’s President George H.W. Bush. Have you been in contact with George W. Bush’s father? Do you know his views on this subject?

RAY McGOVERN: I have been in contact with him, but not recently. It’s a year since I wrote to him. I sense his feelings on this, but he’s very discreet, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean you sense his feelings? What communication have you ever had with him on the subject of what’s happening today?

RAY McGOVERN: Well, I wrote to him very early on and suggested that he ought to tell his son, when he gets an opportunity, the reasons why Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft advised him, the father Bush, very strongly to make sure that he kept the “crazies,” in quotes — quote, “the crazies,” end quote — at levels of authority where they couldn’t put the country at grave risk. I’m talking about the Perles and the Wolfowitzes of this world, the folks who had lingered at pretty senior positions in the Pentagon but didn’t have the final say. They, of course, came in with Bush the son and were not only — well, they were all over the place. They were running the policy. And so, I just suggested to him that he had very good reasons for doing that. He escaped what happened to his son, and maybe he could just remind him why it was good to keep these people at arm’s length.

I got a very short response saying that he’s very proud of his son and that he would — he referred to “the crazies,” in quotes, in his note to me, so those people who doubt that that’s how we refer to these folks, you know, I have some documented proof of that. But I’m sure that, you know, speaking to Scowcroft and Baker before the war and since, he must be distraught at what’s happening. It’s just really amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you one other question. And that is, yes, Nixon, they didn’t attempt to impeach him for Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos. It was about cover-up. But what about that, that usually impeachment is not about the highest crimes? Cindy, what about that?

CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, I think that that would have been a deterrent. I have spoken at length to Liz Holtzman, a former congresswoman from New York who was on that. And she wrote — and her and Congressman Robert Drinan wrote the clauses to impeach him for Cambodia and Laos, and they didn’t go through, because I think that Congress didn’t want to constrain the power of a president in wartime. But I think it needs to be constrained. And our founders wanted it to be constrained. They were afraid of an imperial presidency. And I think if that article had made it to impeachment, then it could restrain future presidents.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to be back, Cindy Sheehan?

CINDY SHEEHAN: You know, I feel healthy and strong and ready to rumble and rested. And my reserves are filled up again, so…

AMY GOODMAN: Cindy Sheehan, co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace; Dan Gerstein, Democratic strategist, political commentator, regular columnist at the website Politico; Ray McGovern, 27-year career analyst with the CIA, co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, I want to thank you all for being with us. And if would you like to weigh in here, you can email us at mail@democracynow.org or just go to our website, democracynow.org, and you can figure out how to send us mail. We’ll read some of that on the air.

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