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New Book Alleges 9/11 Commissioner Philip Zelikow Minimized Scrutiny of Bush Admin Failure to Prevent al-Qaeda Attack

StoryFebruary 05, 2008
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New York Times reporter Phillip Shenon joins us to talk about his new book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. Shenon says 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow had close ties to both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Bush political adviser Karl Rove. He suggests that Zelikow sought to minimize the Bush administration’s responsibility for failing to prevent the September 11th attacks. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 07, 2008EXCLUSIVE: Former 9/11 Commission Chief Philip Zelikow on Allegations He Secretly Allowed Karl Rove & White House to Influence 9/11 Probe
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The executive director of the federal 9/11 Commission, Philip Zelikow, had much closer ties to the Bush administration than publicly disclosed. This is according to an explosive new book by New York Times

investigative reporter Philip Shenon. It’s called The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.

The book goes on sale today but has already created quite a stir in Washington. Philip Shenon alleges Zelikow had close ties to both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and political adviser Karl Rove, suggesting he sought to minimize the Bush administration’s responsibility for failing to prevent the September 11th attacks.

New York Times investigative reporter and author, Philip Shenon, joins us here in the firehouse studio. Welcome to the Democracy Now!

PHILIP SHENON: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: In — rather, joining us in Washington, D.C. Can you start off by — well, beginning where you began in your book, with the story of Sandy Berger?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, in 2002, Sandy Berger, on behalf of President Clinton, was asked to go to the National Archives to begin reviewing the Clinton administration’s most secret national security papers to prepare for all the investigations that everyone assumed were coming on 9/11. And it appears that in his very early travels to the National Archives. He began stealing, in particular, one document that had been prepared in 2001. Many of his friends and admirers believe that he stole this document because he believed, wrongly, that he was somehow or he and the Clinton administration were somehow going to be scapegoated for 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what he took, what he stuffed into his socks and pockets, and how he was discovered.

PHILIP SHENON: He kept stealing the same document. It was a report prepared by Richard Clarke, who you’ll recall at the time was the President’s counterterrorism czar. He served that function both in the Clinton and in the Bush administrations. Berger had tasked him, after a series of terrorist threats at the time of the millennium, to prepare a long list of recommendations for how the nation should better prepare itself for terrorist threats. Clarke did as he was asked to and prepared a very long list, apparently twenty-nine pages, or rather twenty-nine recommendations.

Berger may have believed, or at least people who know about the investigation believe that he thought that because some of these recommendations had not been acted on by the time the Clinton administration left office, that somehow he, Berger, and President Clinton would be blamed for having left the nation vulnerable on 9/11. And again, over a period of more than a year during several visits to the National Archives, whenever Berger finds this document, he steals it. There are several copies of it he steals.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to him?

PHILIP SHENON: The Archives staff became alarmed early on, in one of the early visits, that something was wrong. He — Berger kept making frequent trips to the men’s room, seemingly that were unnecessary. One staffer sees him in the hallway with what appears to be papers rolled around his socks. The Archives staff figures they’ve got to sort of test Berger, and they begin numbering the documents. They begin with a pencil. They place numbers on the back of all the documents that are given to Berger, and on a later visit they determine that indeed there are documents missing. They can determine it very quickly. They call in the — they let the White House know that this is happening. The White House lets the Justice Department know that this is happening, and Berger finds himself the subject of a criminal investigation quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission. First, tell us how it was formed and then his control of the commission.

PHILIP SHENON: The commission was formed by a law passed in Congress in 2002 after a long and very tortured debate. It was a ten-member panel: five Democrats, five Republicans. The only person for the commission chosen by the White House was the chairman, initially Henry Kissinger. Kissinger stepped down, and he was replaced by Tom Kean, the governor of New Jersey. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate chose their five representatives.

Early on, after Governor Kean came on board, there was a search for an executive director, somebody to run the investigation on a day-to-day basis. There’s a polite fiction in Washington that the reports of blue ribbon commissions are written by the blue ribbon commissioners. Well, that’s not usually the case. They’re usually written by a professional staff led by a congressional researcher or a scholar. In this case, Kean and Hamilton came across the resume quite early on of Philip Zelikow, a very well respected historian at the University of Virginia. They contact him, and Zelikow agrees to come on board.

AMY GOODMAN: And he had served on the blue ribbon commission investigating the 2000 vote that got Bush elected.

PHILIP SHENON: Exactly. And he had earned the praise of both Republicans and Democrats on that commission. It’s one of the commissioners from the Electoral Reform Commission who joins the 9/11 Commission and forwards Zelikow’s name to Kean and Hamilton. And as I say, Zelikow comes on board quite early.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about, in your book, the commission, that’s just being released this week, just being released today, Zelikow’s secret relationship with Karl Rove. He’s this week becoming a commentator on Fox News, but much more relevant was his top status within the White House, top adviser to President Bush.

PHILIP SHENON: Well, what I can tell you is that in 2003, Karl Rove called Zelikow a number of times at the commission. We know this because there are phone logs recording Rove’s calls in. Now, Zelikow had a lot of ties to the Bush administration, and that was known to some degree when he signed onto the investigation. And he had assured the commission that he would do his best to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest and would cut off most of these ties with his friends in the White House and elsewhere.

It becomes known on the commission staff in 2003 that despite these promises, Zelikow is having conversations with, of all people, Karl Rove, and this creates, as you might imagine, a huge amount of alarm and suspicion on the commission staff. You know, what is the executive director of the 9/11 Commission doing talking to Karl Rove? Now, Rove’s people at the White House, you know, his friends and allies there, and Zelikow insist that there was — that this was completely innocent and that this involved Zelikow’s work at the University of Virginia. And indeed Zelikow’s work at the University of Virginia centered around presidential histories, so Karl Rove is somebody he would have normally at the university had some sort of contact with, I assume.

And there’s an odd development thereafter, which is Zelikow calls in his secretary, shuts the door and informs her that she is no longer to keep phone logs of his contacts with the White House. The secretary is alarmed by this, worries that she’s being asked to do something improper and then contacts the chief lawyer for the commission to alert him to what’s happened. As I say, this whole sequence creates a great alarm and a great suspicion about what Zelikow was up to.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Philip Shenon. His book has just come out. It’s called The Commission. His relationship, Philip Zelikow’s relationship with Condoleezza Rice, how far back does it go, and what does it mean for the ultimate report that comes out?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, they have a relationship that goes way back. They were both members of the National Security Council staff in the first Bush administration, Bush 41. They formed a close relationship at that point. After that presidency, Zelikow goes off to Harvard, and Rice returns to Stanford, yet they stay in touch, and they write a book together about German reunification. After President Bush 43 enters the White House, he sets up a transition team for the National Security Council at Rice’s recommendation, and Rice tasks Zelikow to join the transition team, specifically with the responsibility for reviewing counterterrorism operations at the White House.

Now, some of this was known at the time of Zelikow’s hiring. I think the question is, how much of that was known? And, of course, Rice was at the heart of the 9/11 Commission investigation. You know, it was her actions in the spring and summer of 2001 that were among the most important subjects for investigation by the 9/11 Commission, yet the commission was being run on a day-to-day basis by somebody who was undeniably a very close friend of hers.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice publicly testifying before the 9/11 Commission. It was April 8, 2004, an exchange between Rice and Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste.

    RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: You acknowledged to us in your interview of February 7, 2004, that Richard Clarke told you that al-Qaeda cells were in the United States. Did you tell the President at any time prior to August 6 of the existence of al-Qaeda cells in the United States?

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: First, let me just make certain —-

    RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: If you could just answer that question -—

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, first —-

    RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: —- because I only have a very limited –

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but it’s important —-

    RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the President?

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: —- that I also address — it’s also important, Commissioner, that I address the other issues that you have raised. So I will do it quickly, but if you’ll just give me a moment.

    RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, my only question to you is whether you —-

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but I will -—

    RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: — told the President.

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: If you will just give me a moment, I will address fully the questions that you’ve asked. First of all, yes, the August 6 PDB was in response to questions of the President. In that sense, he asked that this be done. It was not a particular threat report. And there was historical information in there about various aspects of al-Qaeda’s operations. Dick Clarke had told me, I think in a memorandum — I remember it as being only a line or two —- that there were al-Qaeda cells in the United States.

    Now, the question is, what did we need to do about that? And I also understood that that was what the FBI was doing, that the FBI was pursuing these al-Qaeda cells. I believe in the August 6 memorandum it says that there were seventy full field investigations under way of these cells. And so, there was no recommendation that we do something about this. The FBI was pursuing it. I really don’t remember, Commissioner, whether I discussed this with the President. I -—


    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I remember very well that the President was aware that there were issues inside the United States. He talked to people about this. But I don’t remember the al-Qaeda cells as being something that we were told we needed to do something about.

    RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title that PDB?

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I believe the title was “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States.”

AMY GOODMAN: Condoleezza Rice being questioned by Richard Ben-Veniste of the 9/11 Commission. The significance of this interchange, Philip Shenon?

PHILIP SHENON: Those were probably the five most dramatic moments in the two years I covered the commission. Well, there was a rather remarkable document that was handed to President Bush in August 2001 titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in US.” It was his — it’s the daily brief. He — the President receives sort of a super-secret newspaper every morning that has the most important news the CIA wants to get across to him, and that was the headline on the PDB on August 6, 2001, just, you know, a month before 9/11. And the question is why, after the President and Rice got this document, they didn’t do much more to try to prepare for the possibility of a domestic terrorist strike?

Now, I will tell you, the August 6 PDB, you can make too much of it, and you can make too little of it. A lot of the information in the PDB was wrong. A lot of it was historical that dated back several years. But there were some fairly specific current warnings, current intelligence suggesting that something was going on. And it actually refers to concerns that terrorists might be conducting surveillance of the skyline of New York City and that hijacked planes might somehow be involved in whatever threat was underway.

AMY GOODMAN: And what ultimately got reported in the commission report of Condoleezza Rice, what she knew, when she knew it? What effect did Philip Zelikow have on that?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, Zelikow apparently used the term “Clarke-centric.” He kept telling the staff that he thought the report that they were writing was too Clarke-centric, too much drawn from and defending the position of Richard Clarke, who had argued, you know, rather explosively in 2004 that President Bush and Condi Rice had ignored his warnings that something terrible was about to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the Bush administration tried to destroy Richard Clarke’s credibility?

PHILIP SHENON: They had quite a campaign going, both publicly and behind the scenes, to lead the public to believe that Richard Clarke was making these damning allegations either because he was a very partisan Democrat who wanted to see President Bush ousted from the White House in the elections that November, and they also engaged in a behind-the-scenes attack to feed questions to the 9/11 Commission that they thought would undermine Clarke’s credibility.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Philip Shenon, investigative reporter. His book is called The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Philip Shenon. He has just published his book The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. Philip, I wanted to play for you the vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, denying claims that Zelikow worked to minimize the Bush administration’s responsibility for failing to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

    LEE HAMILTON: We found him to be very fair-minded, quite impartial, very rigorous in his searching out of the facts, and he certainly did not try to protect the Bush administration or to protect anybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the 9/11 Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton interviewed on NBC’s Nightly News. Philip Shenon?

PHILIP SHENON: Congressman Hamilton has always — throughout the investigation was a big champion of Dr. Zelikow’s. Mr. Hamilton was very much involved in the decision to hire Dr. Zelikow in the first place. I will tell you that I think there are a large number of people on the commission staff, at least, who would certainly disagree with Congressman Hamilton.

AMY GOODMAN: In your book, Philip Shenon, you write about Attorney General Ashcroft and how he tried to mount an attack on a member of the commission to defer criticism that he refused to listen to reports about al-Qaeda threats.

PHILIP SHENON: Well, I will — that attack, it’s a bit of an irony that John Ashcroft, who was treated very harshly by the 9/11 Commission in his appraisal of his performance, was really the man who maybe more than anyone else is responsible for the unanimity of the 9/11 Commission at the end. The commission was prepared to make very serious charges against Ashcroft, that he had essentially ignored terrorist threats in the spring and summer of 2001, that he had actually told the FBI that he didn’t want to hear anything more about al-Qaeda, he didn’t feel he could do anything about it. The FBI was pretty — was astounded by that declaration from Ashcroft.

But Ashcroft’s strategy then was to mount a counterattack, and he mounted a counterattack against Jamie Gorelick, one of the Democratic commissioners on the commission who had been Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration. And Ashcroft made public some memos from the Clinton administration that he said showed that Gorelick was responsible for so many of the problems that the FBI and the Justice Department faced in 2001 in not being able to respond to terrorist attacks.

The commissioners, to a person, found Ashcroft’s attack to be wildly unfair and really rallied behind Gorelick. And really, as I say, Ashcroft’s attack is really what brought the commissioners together at the end to produce a unanimous report.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Max Cleland, the senator from Georgia who served on the commission? What happened to him?

PHILIP SHENON: He was easily the most partisan Democrat on the commission. He believed that the 9/11 — excuse me, that the 9/11 Commission needed to get to the bottom of why so many people in the Bush administration appeared to have bungled intelligence in the spring and summer of 2001. And perhaps more importantly for Cleland, he thought the commission needed to try to figure out if the Bush administration had taken the nation to war in 2003 in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence, that it had sort of rigged the case against Iraq trying to link it to al-Qaeda.

The commission very much — the commission’s leadership very much didn’t want to take on those issues. And they became so alarmed by Cleland’s outbursts and his obvious disdain for President Bush and for Karl Rove, in particular, that they looked for a way to ease him off the investigation, and they were successful at that. Cleveland was offered a job elsewhere in the federal government and left the panel. Now, Cleland will tell you that it was his decision absolutely to get off the commission. He thought it was on the verge of a whitewash, and he wanted off. But regardless, he leaves the scene, and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey joins the commission in his place.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Vice President, Dick Cheney, then and now?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, he plays a big role in much of this story. Cheney was really at the forefront of efforts to try to stop the 9/11 Commission from being created in the first place. He was unsuccessful at that, obviously. He becomes important later on when the commission begins to investigate what happened at the White House on the morning of September 11th.

Most importantly, the question with regards to Cheney was: why did authorize the Pentagon on the morning of 9/11 to begin shooting down passenger planes if they approached Washington, D.C.? Cheney was at the White House, the President was in Florida. Cheney, claiming he was acting at the authorization of the President, told the Pentagon to be prepared to shoot down passenger planes, and he insisted — he being the Vice President — insisted to the 9/11 Commission that he had only issued this order after consultation with the President and after receiving the President’s approval. The commission staff, and I think most of the commissioners, become convinced over time that that account is just not true, that the Vice President issued the shoot-down order without any authorization from the President, an act that would almost certainly be unconstitutional. The Vice President really has no role in military decision-making. If there was a shoot-down order issued, it should have been issued either by the President or by the Defense Secretary in his place. The commission — if you read between the lines of the 9/11 Commission report, I think you can see that they didn’t believe the Vice President.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Philip Shenon, investigative reporter with the New York Times, has just come out with a book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. It comes from his years of reporting on the commission, as well as the aftermath. Can you talk about where Bob Kerrey stood, who replaced Max Cleland? The reports are that he almost quit when he heard about Zelikow’s connections to Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice.

PHILIP SHENON: Kerrey joins the commission in December of 2003, really only several months left in the investigation at that point. He cancels his Christmas vacation with his wife in Italy, and he gets on the train and comes down to Washington and begins reading up on what’s in the commission’s files. And on the very first day he begins going through the files, he comes across a memo that Zelikow had apparently prepared, listing all of his ties to the Bush administration, his friendship with Condi Rice, his involvement on the transition team, the fact that he had written the 2002 preemptive war strategy for the White House that would be used to justify the Iraq war in 2003 —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.

PHILIP SHENON: We have to back track a bit, but —


PHILIP SHENON: — in 2002 — this is before the creation of the 9/11 Commission — Condoleezza Rice contacts Zelikow at the University of Virginia and asks him to prepare a document for the White House that would justify a preemptive war, an attack against an enemy that did not necessarily pose an immediate threat to the United States. In many ways, it would be a document that would turn American military doctrine on its head. Zelikow does this and produces quite a masterfully written memo called “The National Security Strategy of the United States,” issued in September in 2002. And very few people know that this document was written by Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia. That really wouldn’t be well known for another two years.

Now, bringing the story forward a bit, Bob Kerrey comes across the memo listing all of Zelikow’s ties to the White House and his contacts and his friendships and announces immediately to Tom Kean, the chairman of the commission, that “it’s either him or me. Zelikow goes, or I go. How could you possibly have hired somebody with so many conflicts of interest to run this investigation?”

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush — talk about the unique circumstances under which President Bush and Vice President Cheney testified before the commission.

PHILIP SHENON: Well, for most of the life of the 9/11 Commission, the President and the Vice President had no intention of meeting with the 9/11 Commission. They argued that it was not the President’s place to be involved in that sort of questioning. And there was some history there. The Vice — excuse me, President Lyndon Johnson had refused to answer questions from the Warren Commission, at least face to face.

At the end of the day, political pressures were such that the President and the Vice President, Bush and Cheney, agreed to meet with all ten members of the 9/11 Commission. They would only meet with the commissioners if they could appear together. The questioning could not be under oath. And it could not recorded in any way. And it took place in the spring of 2004, just a couple of months before the commission finished its work.

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t the most astounding part of that that it wasn’t under oath?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, again, as I say, there is no history of presidents being required to submit to questioning like this. And, you know, the White House had a strong argument in many ways. You know, President Johnson was not required to submit to similar questioning and certainly not under oath before the Warren Commission that was investigating the assassination of his predecessor.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about those in this country who believe 9/11 was an inside job. How did you deal with that, Philip Shenon, and the fact, for example, the concerns, among many others, that the building number seven was not even talked about in the commission report?

PHILIP SHENON: It’s a tough issue. I just haven’t seen the evidence. There are certainly people who believe it was an inside job. I have trouble believing that myself. I have great difficulty believing in vast conspiracies. I just think a conspiracy of that nature would require competence on the part of people in the federal government that I just don’t believe exists in the federal government.

AMY GOODMAN: The Jersey Girls, their role in all of this, who they were, the significance in the formation and the conclusions and their attitude afterwards to what ultimately came out?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, this commission would never, never have been formed without the pressure of the 9/11 families. You know, there was great resistance from the White House. There was great resistance from Republican leaders in Congress to having any sort of investigation, certainly no independent investigation, of 9/11.

AMY GOODMAN: McCain did push for it, didn’t he?

PHILIP SHENON: Oh, McCain was — McCain was absolutely a champion of this. And I think second only to the families is Senator John McCain, in getting the commission created. The Jersey Girls were a particularly aggressive and effective group of the 9/11 survivors to really shame the White House and Congress into creating the 9/11 Commission. And they were very aggressive throughout the investigation in trying to keep the investigation on course. And they were very harshly critical of Zelikow, and they were among the first to sort of go public with information about Zelikow’s ties to the White House. They very early on called for Zelikow to resign or to severely recuse himself from involvement in the investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Sibel Edmonds, the translator, interpreter, who was hired soon after 9/11, she ultimately did get a private hearing with the commission. The significance of her testimony? Was it considered at all?

PHILIP SHENON: I know they heard from her. I don’t get the impression they may have taken her as seriously as they perhaps should have. But though they don’t address her in any way — they don’t address her in a serious way in the commission’s final report.

AMY GOODMAN: The CIA, George Tenet?

PHILIP SHENON: The CIA — it’s interesting about the CIA, because I do think the commission staff found there were an awful lot of people at the CIA to admire. There were people at the CIA who really understood the bin Laden threat early on and really wanted to see action taken to try to shut down the al-Qaeda network. And Tenet, to his credit, was one of the people who early on does seem to have understood al-Qaeda and was warning the White House, was warning Congress, they needed to do more to prepare.

Tenet becomes a very controversial figure on the commission, among the commissioners on the commission staff, because of the concern that he may not have always been telling the truth. They were so concerned about his truthfulness, in fact, that when they held private interviews with Tenet, he, unlike most other witnesses, was required to be placed under oath. They were so concerned about his credibility.

Now, I’ll tell you that Tenet’s loyalists at the CIA say this is grossly unfair, that there was an effort by the commission and Zelikow in particular to scapegoat the CIA and that the commission built an unfair case against Tenet, that his memory was really no more faulty than anyone else’s. But the commission staff says that Tenet couldn’t recall very important documents, couldn’t recall very important meetings, couldn’t recall very important events in the course of the months before 9/11 that he should easily have been able to recall.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did the commission fail to expose Rudolph Giuliani and his role in the lead-up to 9/11 in preventing the attack? In fact, today is a primary day in New York. September 11, 2001 was another day that the polls were open.


AMY GOODMAN: Philip Shenon.

PHILIP SHENON: Indeed. Well, the commission staff — I guess I should — the commission staff always qualifies this. They say that Rudy Giuliani, on the day of September 11th, performed heroically. You know, he really comforted the city and the nation in a way that certainly the President of the United States wasn’t able to.

But what happened during the eight years before that? You know, New York City had been attacked in 1993 by Islamic extremists, and what did they attack? They attacked the World Trade Center. And nobody should have been surprised that the terrorists would return some day and that the World Trade Center might well remain one of their principal targets.

During those eight years, the commission staff found the Giuliani administration had done remarkably little to prepare the city for the possibility of a terrorist strike. And the commission staff drew together a long, long list of questions, tough questions, to be asked of Giuliani when he finally testified before the 9/11 Commission in May of 2004. But the commissioners will acknowledge —

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

PHILIP SHENON: Oh, I’m sorry. The commissioners, at the end of the day, were frightened of Giuliani and really only asked him softballs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Philip Shenon, we have to leave it there. You certainly don’t leave it there in your book. The book is called The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.

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EXCLUSIVE: Former 9/11 Commission Chief Philip Zelikow on Allegations He Secretly Allowed Karl Rove & White House to Influence 9/11 Probe

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