Who's tougher on terror?

Conservatives blame 9/11 on Clinton. But it was Bush Republicans who made deals with terrorists -- while Clinton's team took concrete steps to protect Americans. Part 5 of "Big Lies."

Published August 23, 2003 12:54AM (EDT)

"Conservatives are tough on terrorism, while liberal Democrats are soft."

After terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill eagerly lined up with conservative Republicans to pledge their support for the President's war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. No one mentioned the hesitancy of George W. Bush's initial response to the terror strikes. No one said or did anything that might hint at dissension in a time of national crisis. When Bush showed up at a joint session of Congress nine days after the fall of the World Trade Center to deliver a rousing speech, he won standing applause across the bitter partisan divide left by the 2000 election.

That evening, the Democratic leaders in Congress for the first time declined the television networks' standard offer of free airtime to answer a Republican presidential address. "We want America to speak with one voice tonight and we want enemies and the whole world and all of our citizens to know that America speaks tonight with one voice," explained Richard Gephardt, the House Democratic leader. Without knowing any specifics of Bush's plan for military action, Gephardt pledged, "We have faith in him and his colleagues in the executive branch to do this in the right way."

At a press conference after the President's address, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle stood with his Republican counterpart, Trent Lott, to demonstrate joint support for the President. "Tonight there is no opposition party," said Lott. "We stand here united, not as Republicans and Democrats, not as Southerners or Westerners or Midwesterners or Easterners, but as Americans." Agreed Daschle, "We want President Bush to know -- we want the world to know -- that he can depend on us."

Even many of Bush's harshest critics on the left praised his eloquence that evening and expressed their support for him. "He hit a home run," said Representative Maxine Waters, the firebrand Los Angeles Democrat. "We may disagree later, but now is not the time."

Left politely unmentioned by Waters was the indelible fact that in the hours following the attack, Bush had failed to reassure and rally the nation. Under the extraordinary circumstances, he was rightly afforded an opportunity to recoup his credibility with very little negative comment. (That this was more than most Republicans had ever done for Bill Clinton didn't matter. The Democrats were not inclined to trim their patriotism to match the opportunism of their adversaries.)

In Bush's sudden surge of popularity, his political adviser Karl Rove saw an immediate opportunity. Midterm elections would be coming up in the fall of 2002, which meant the Republicans could exploit wartime patriotism and the President's newfound power to gain seats in Congress and retake the Senate. The need for bipartisan cooperation didn't matter. Neither did the fact that the Democrats had been just as supportive of the war effort and security measures as the Republicans.

The inspiring presidential rhetoric that unified the nation would soon be discarded. The memory of politicians of both parties gathering on the steps of the Capitol to sing "God Bless America" meant nothing. The slogan of a nation at war that blossomed on billboards, bumper stickers and storefronts -- "United We Stand" -- was no longer convenient. Less than four months after Bush's September 20 address to the joint session of Congress, Rove spoke behind closed doors at the Republican National Committee's winter conference in Austin, Texas. There he revealed his plan to regain control of the Senate and retain control of the House by turning the war on terror into a partisan weapon.

"We can go to the country on this issue, because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," Rove explained. Those remarks, although provocative in departing from the bipartisan unity of September 11's aftermath, were considerably blander than the vicious line put out by Republicans and conservatives ever since.

For Rove, terrorism served as the universal solvent of national politics. The response to terror raised President Bush's sagging poll numbers and, for a while, gave him the kind of political Teflon armor once worn by Ronald Reagan. The war on terror excused Bush's enormous deficit spending, his attacks on public employees, his curtailment of traditional freedoms, his unilateralist foreign policy, and his drive to wage "pre-emptive" war on Iraq. The threat of terror gave him a sword against any and all opponents, foreign or domestic, which he used to cut down Democrats in the midterm elections.

Rove's electoral strategy could only function effectively, however, if the press and the public, as well as Congress, were discouraged from examining what the Republicans in power had done to combat terrorism in the months before the catastrophe. Any such inquiry would inevitably clash with the themes of Republican strength and Democratic weakness that Rove intended to promote.

Only one problem on the political horizon might complicate Rove's strategic use of terrorism: an independent investigation of the circumstances leading to the September 11 catastrophe. Americans wanted answers to important questions about how the Bush administration confronted the terrorist threat before the fall of the World Trade Center. Were the seasoned Republican officials who took office nine months before the attack as tough as their talk? Were they alerted to the impending threat? Did they heed the warnings? Why did U.S. intelligence and security agencies fail to thwart the al-Qaida plot?

The nation remains far from reaching any conclusions about those issues -- and others of equal importance -- because the White House obstructed the investigation for more than a year. Bush and Cheney didn't want Congress to investigate the causes of the disaster, and they certainly didn't want any snooping by an independent commission. So determined was the White House to conceal any embarrassing facts that when the Democrats took control of the Senate in spring 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney tried to intimidate Majority Leader Tom Daschle from undertaking a serious investigation of the September 11 catastrophe. Both Newsweek and the Washington Post reported that Cheney had called Daschle to warn against the investigation.

The prospect of public hearings particularly disturbed Cheney. He told Daschle that any such inquiry would be stigmatized as partisan interference with the war on terrorism. The President later echoed Cheney's bluster, in milder terms, at a breakfast with congressional leaders. In the months since those pleas and threats were issued, the White House and its political surrogates have repeatedly sought to exploit the campaign against terrorism for cheap advantage. (The Republicans sold pictures of the commander in chief on Air Force One, for example, while demanding immunity from public scrutiny.) But conservative Republicans such as Alabama Senator Richard Shelby were as bemused and troubled as the Democrats by the administration's attempt to cover up lethal incompetence.

What seems clear, even now, is that the President and his associates are not eager to see those troubling issues examined by any independent authority -- out of reasonable fear that the findings will not flatter them.

Seeking to scuttle any probe before it could begin, the President's aides and his allies on Capitol Hill continued to stall the investigation by appealing to fear (and, rather brazenly, to patriotism). National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice argued that an investigation would endanger the country still further. "In the context of this ongoing war, it is extremely important to protect the sources and the methods and the information so that we can try and disrupt further attacks," she claimed. "The problem is that this is an act that is not finished. It is ongoing. We are still fighting a war on terrorism." Tom DeLay dove into the gutter immediately: "We will not allow our president to be undermined by those who want his job during a time of war." It was quite revealing that DeLay assumed a full investigation would undermine Bush.

Propelling the demand for an independent investigation were continuing pressures from organizations representing the families of the September 11 victims, combined with slowly leaking revelations about the incompetence of the FBI. The inconclusive results of an investigation by a joint congressional committee likewise gave momentum to that demand, which the public had supported from the beginning. Finally, in September 2002, the administration agreed to an independent commission, created by an amendment to the bill establishing the Department of Homeland Security. During intense negotiations with the amendment's sponsors, Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, the administration fought to gain control over the naming, staffing, and powers of the commission.

To the extent that they succeeded, the independent commission became a strange bipartisan hybrid that cannot issue a subpoena without approval of its chairman -- who happens to be a presidential appointee. In many respects, the commission as constituted is far less independent than similar entities set up after earlier national disasters such as Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, and the Challenger explosion. Or the independent counsels who probed every corner of the Clinton administration.

To make matters worse, the President immediately cast doubt on his own good faith when he appointed former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to chair the commission. The predictable reaction was outrage. Within weeks, the alleged war criminal, international corporate fixer, and inveterate liar resigned under a withering blast of editorial fire. Kissinger didn't want to reveal the corporate clients that might raise questions about conflict of interest. To replace him, Bush named a far blander choice: former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean. Nine months after the passage of the independent commission amendment, little apparent progress had been made. And the commission's meager funding was being held up by the White House.

To distract attention from the Bush administration's evident failure in dealing with al-Qaida, conservatives have pursued two separate but related offensives: defaming liberals and Democrats as "soft on terror," and blaming Bill Clinton for the September 11 attacks. Both are integral parts of Republican political strategy, but as a White House adviser, Rove leaves that kind of dirty work to others.

Naturally, Ann Coulter didn't let him down. In the first few pages of "Slander," this is what she says on the subject of the war on terror: "Here the country had finally given liberals a war against fundamentalism and they didn't want to fight it. They would have, except it would put them on the same side as the United States." Who didn't want to fight the war against terror? The Democrats who unanimously (with one exception) voted to support Bush's military action against the Taliban? Coulter also claims that "liberals urged compassion and understanding toward the terrorists," again without citing a single name or quotation.

Joining her in the smear campaign was former ultraleftist David Horowitz, the author of various articles and pamphlets counseling Republicans on political strategy. At least one of his booklets carried a personal endorsement from Rove, who had introduced Horowitz to George W. Bush.

In "How to Beat the Democrats," which appeared in 2002, Horowitz emphasized the supposed culpability of Democrats, particularly in the Clinton administration, for the September 11 catastrophe. He claimed that "mainstream Democrats were...significant players in the debacle of 9/11. And no one is more singularly responsible for America's vulnerability on that fateful day than the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and his White House staff."

Like so much of what he feels compelled to say, Horowitz's advice was stark, simple, and demagogic. He told voters that their very lives could be endangered if they voted the wrong way: "This is a story the Republicans must tell the American people if they are to be warned about the dangers of putting their trust in the party of Bill Clinton by casting their votes for Democrats come November." Among conservatives rallying around Bush, there was little doubt that Clinton had known about al-Qaida's potential for destructive aggression and had "simply refused to do anything serious about the threat." Or so they said.

What these right-wing critics really knew about the years of American effort devoted to tracking and destroying al-Qaida was considerably less than they affected to know. The Republican attacks on Clinton -- at a moment when the nation was supposed to be unified and bipartisan -- gave off a peculiar smell. It was the odor of cover-up, as if spraying Clinton with bile were the only way to ensure that no one sniffed around the policy and administrative bungling of the Bush administration.

The most generous assessment of the Republican record in fighting terrorism is "mixed." Again, rhetoric obscures reality, with the assistance of the complaisant "liberal" media. Stereotypes of tough Republican daddies and soft Democratic mommies are irresistible to weak-minded journalists, who reinforce such cliches continuously. But recent history shows that it is conservatives, not liberals, whose attitude toward terrorism can turn squishy soft for political expediency.

The most notorious example is the Iran-Contra scandal, first exposed in 1986. At the center of that bizarre episode in conservative statesmanship was a scheme to sell high-tech missiles to the theocratic dictatorship governing Iran -- in exchange for that government's assistance in obtaining the release of American hostages by their kidnappers, the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

The conservative Republicans of the Reagan-Bush era spoke loudly about "fighting international terrorism." Their record was outstanding for its ineptitude, hypocrisy and politically motivated leniency: conniving in arms deals with the Iranian sponsors of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad; sponsoring secret attempts to secure the release of the Dawa'a terrorist prisoners from imprisonment in Kuwait; lifting sanctions on Chile despite the regime's refusal to extradite the perpetrators of a terror bombing in Washington, D.C.; favoring a Cuban terrorist mass murderer (Orlando Bosch) with presidential favors for domestic political reasons. Their record was an international disgrace. And they still have the gall to call their opponents "soft on terror."

When terrorists first tried to take down the World Trade Center with a truck bomb in February 1993, there was no organized outcry of recrimination against George Herbert Walker Bush, although he had left the Oval Office a scant six weeks earlier. Neither the incoming Clinton administration nor the Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress tried to blame Bush for the intelligence failures that had allowed the perpetrators of that atrocity to conspire undetected for more than three years.

No liberal commentator pronounced the former President guilty of "criminal negligence," as conservatives immediately did in blaming Bill Clinton for the September 11 attacks. Using fabrications, falsehoods and half-truths, the opportunists of the right compiled an indictment of Clinton and the Democrats. Calling for "national unity" in one breath, they angrily assaulted Clinton in the next. To make their case, they had to erase his administration's extensive record of action against terrorism.

The tenor of this journalistic prosecution was epitomized by a deceptive account in the Washington Times of a Clinton speech at Georgetown University almost two months after the attack. By cutting and pasting from Clinton's text, the Moonie daily falsely reported that the former President had blamed America for the terrorist attack. "Clinton calls terror a U.S. debt to past," blared the front-page headline on November 8. Yet there was nothing in the speech -- or even in reporter Joseph Curl's misleading story -- to justify that headline. Clinton's speech had made passing references to American slavery and to the brutality of the Crusades against Islam. But the thrust of his speech was that "we have to win the fight we're in." And he went on to say, "I am just a citizen, and as a citizen I support the efforts of President Bush, the national security team, and our allies in fighting the current terrorist threat. I believe we all should."

The Washington Times report was instantly regurgitated on talk radio and right-wing Web sites, which distorted his remarks into an assertion that "America got what it deserved." Among the many mindless parrots was Andrew Sullivan, who then read the text of the Clinton speech and had to grudgingly admit that the Moonie paper's version had been "appallingly slanted." But that was only the beginning of a continuing effort to transform the tragedy of 9/11 into "Clinton's legacy."

Any honest examination of the roots of the September 11 attack would necessarily begin several years before Clinton was elected President -- when the Central Intelligence Agency provided up to a billion dollars in aid to the Afghan mujahideen. Those resources, controlled by the Islamist generals who ran Pakistan's Interservice Intelligence agency, were used to build the militant jihadist movements that later formed the Taliban and al-Qaida. According to Yossef Bodansky, former director of the Congressonal Task Force on Terrorism and author of "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America," U.S. taxpayers unwittingly financed the training of Islamist terrorists under Pakistani auspices.

None of that ancient history was of much concern to conservatives who had supported Reagan's Afghan adventure. For them, the history of Islamist terror began with the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center. That was when Clinton supposedly ought to have declared war on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, as Sullivan and others insisted, because "the investigation found links to Osama bin Laden."

In fact, however, no clue to the Saudi millionaire's alleged involvement with the WTC bombing emerged until at least three years later. In 1993 U.S. authorities were scarcely aware of bin Laden's existence. Conservative journalists, such as the New Republic's Fred Barnes, were then suggesting that the likeliest perpetrator of the World Trade Center bombing was Iran. Hard evidence linking bin Laden to that attack still remains scanty.

The indictment of Clinton by Sean Hannity, Sullivan and other conservatives relies heavily on a fable about attempts by the government of Sudan to "hand over bin Laden to the United States" in 1996. That story, attested by an American businessman who represents Sudanese interests, is designed to expunge the Khartoum regime's many atrocities against its own people as well as its close relationship with Islamist terror organizations. Authoritative reporting in the Washington Post and in "The Age of Sacred Terror" by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon shows that the Sudanese offered only to "arrest Osama bin Laden and place him in Saudi custody."

Post reporter Barton Gellman detailed the efforts by the Clinton White House and the State Department to induce the Saudis to accept custody of bin Laden, a request that the authorities in Riyadh adamantly refused. There was no offer to hand bin Laden over to the United States before the Sudanese deported him back to Kabul.

The Sudanese have always had their own agenda, by the way, which Clinton's antagonists never mention. They promised to cooperate against terrorism only if the United States ended economic sanctions imposed to punish their genocidal campaign of bombing and enslavement against black Christians. Frequently during those years, Sudanese officials would promise copious intelligence about the Islamist terror network. But after many meetings, neither the FBI nor the CIA believed that Khartoum was providing anything valuable on bin Laden or al-Qaida. In their eagerness to indict Clinton and their inexperience in dealing with matters of foreign intelligence, propagandists like Hannity have served as useful idiots in a disinformation gambit by the Sudanese intelligence service.

The Clinton critics like to dismiss his administration's efforts to stop bin Laden as a couple of missiles fired at an empty tent. Yet there was no lack of zeal in Clinton's hunt for the Saudi terrorist. In 1998 Clinton signed a secret National Security Decision Directive that authorized an intensive, ongoing campaign to destroy al-Qaida and seize or assassinate bin Laden. Several attempts were made on bin Laden's life, aside from the famous cruise missile launches that summer, which conservatives falsely denounced as an attempt to deflect attention from the Lewinsky scandal.

In 1999, the CIA organized a Pakistani commando unit to enter Afghanistan on a mission to capture or kill bin Laden. That operation was aborted when General Pervez Musharraf seized the Pakistani government from Nawaz Sharif, the more cooperative civilian Prime Minister. A year later, bin Laden was reportedly almost killed in a rocket-grenade attack on his convoy. Unfortunately, the missiles hit the wrong truck.

Simultaneously, the White House tried to persuade or coerce the Taliban regime into expelling bin Laden from Afghanistan. Clinton signed an executive order freezing $254 million in Taliban assets in the United States, while the State Department kept the Taliban internationally isolated. But there was nothing the United States could have done, short of full-scale military action, to separate al-Qaida from the Taliban. And there was also no guarantee that such action would lead to the apprehension of bin Laden, as the Bush administration discovered when American forces helped to overthrow the Taliban after September 11.

On Clinton's watch, the CIA and the National Security Council instituted a special al-Qaida unit that thwarted several deadly conspiracies, including a scheme to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on Millennium Eve, and plots to bomb the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels in New York City as well as the United Nations building. Timely American intelligence also prevented a deadly assault on the Israeli embassy in Washington. Meanwhile, the State Department and the CIA neutralized dozens of terrorist cells overseas through quiet prosecutions, extraditions, and executions undertaken by allies from Albania to the Philippines.

A month before Clinton left office -- and nine months before the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- the nation's most experienced diplomats in counterterrorism praised those efforts. "Overall, I give them very high marks," said Robert Oakley, former Ambassador for Counterterrorism in the Reagan State Department. "The only major criticism I have is the obsession with Osama, which has made him stronger." Paul Bremer, who had served in the same post under Reagan and later was chosen by congressional leaders to chair the National Commission on Terrorism, disagreed slightly with his colleague. Bremer told the Washington Post he believed that the Clinton administration had "correctly focused on bin Laden." (He has since been chosen to lead the Bush administration team in Iraq.)

Following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the new president sent stringent antiterrorism legislation to Congress as part of his first crime bill. The passage of that legislation many months later was the last time he would enjoy real cooperation against terrorism from congressional conservatives. When he sought to expand those protections in 1995 after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, he was frustrated by a coalition of civil libertarians and antigovernment conservatives, who argued that his "overreaction" posed a threat to constitutional rights. Among that bill's most controversial provisions were new powers to turn away suspect immigrants, swifter deportation procedures, and a new deportation court that could view secret evidence. (During his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush won support from American Muslims by denouncing that provision.)

Thanks to an increasingly obstreperous Republican majority on both sides of the Capitol, law enforcement officials were denied new authority for roving wiretaps and new powers to monitor money laundering. All that would have to wait until after September 11, when the Republicans suddenly reversed position with a vengeance.

Indiana Representative David McIntosh, a leading conservative ideologue in Congress, enunciated the typical partisan reaction to Clinton's counterterror proposals. McIntosh insisted on steering the debate back to a phony White House scandal. "We find it very troubling that you're asking us for additional authority to wiretap innocent Americans," he declared, "when you have failed to explain to the American people why you abuse their civil liberties by having FBI files brought into the White House."

Among the most conspicuous opponents of counterterrorist action was former Senator Phil Gramm, who blocked an administration bill to close loopholes that let terrorist groups launder money through offshore banks. The Texas Republican denounced that legislation, since endorsed by the Bush White House as essential in dismantling al-Qaida, as "totalitarian."

Clinton persevered, even as his adversaries on Capitol Hill prosecuted the right-wing harassment campaign against the White House. While politicians and journalists fanned the scandal frenzy, he and his appointees tried to prepare for the serious threats they anticipated. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, they began a nationwide initiative to improve home front security.

Between 1996 and 2001, federal spending on counterterrorism increased dramatically, to more than $12 billion annually. The FBI's counterterrorism budget rose even more sharply, from $78 million in 1996 to $609 million in 2000, tripling the number of agents assigned to such activities and creating a new Counter-terrorism Center at the Bureau's Washington headquarters.

Whether FBI Director Louis Freeh properly used that gusher of funding is another question. In retrospect, Clinton must be blamed for appointing Freeh, a truly inept administrator. The Republican Freeh, always favored by conservatives in Congress, never concealed his contempt for the president who had appointed him, and after he aligned himself with Clinton's adversaries in Congress and in the media, the President had no real power to remove him. But the degree of the Bureau's deterioration didn't become clear until near the end of Clinton's second term.

Besides strengthening law enforcement, the Clinton administration sponsored a series of sophisticated simulations to improve the response of local, state, and federal officials to possible assaults with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. The President himself became obsessed with the potential threat of anthrax and other biological weapons.

Before he left office, the federal Centers for Disease Control issued a $343 million contract to manufacture 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine, as part of a wide-ranging research and development program of defense against biological weapons. Altogether, spending on "domestic preparedness" rose from $42.6 million in 1997 to more than $1.2 billion in 2000. The foresight represented by those appropriations gave Bush an important head start, though the White House press corps will never hear about that from his press secretary.

None of this means that Clinton's record is free of blemish. Could he have done more to reform the intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracy? Did he fail to resolve the ongoing rivalries that fractured the FBI, the CIA, and the other intelligence services? Was he distracted by domestic concerns and scandals, including the Lewinsky affair that he so foolishly and selfishly brought upon himself?

The answer to all those questions is yes. But instead of smearing Clinton, his antagonists might ask themselves what they and their political allies did in the early years of the war against terrorism. Sullivan, for one, would have to scour his own scribblings in vain for any mention of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida before September 11. He was hardly alone in his obliviousness and obstructionism. With few exceptions, the record of Clinton's critics on this issue compares poorly with that of the man they vilify.

But the campaign undertaken by Hannity, Sullivan, Horowitz, and other conservatives to arraign Clinton for September 11 has a more sinister, explicitly political aim. Their rhetoric is redolent of the old stab-in-the-back theories once used to discredit FDR and JFK. And of course they are attempting to deflect blame from Bush (whose vow to get bin Laden, "dead or alive," has been consigned to the same White House memory hole as the balanced budget).

Does George W. Bush deserve responsibility for the failures that led to September 11? The independent commission that the President so reluctantly approved in late 2002 is likely to provide complex and nuanced answers to that question. Perhaps the commission will explain why members of the bin Laden family were spirited out of the United States on orders from the White House before they could be questioned by the FBI. Perhaps the commission will explore why FBI terror expert John O'Neill, who died in the World Trade Center conflagration, believed that the Bush administration was soft on Saudi cooperation with al-Qaida.

What is clear already from the public record is that the Bush administration received ample warning from Clinton's national security officials -- and from CIA Director George Tenet, a Clinton holdover -- that al-Qaida posed the most significant, immediate threat to American security.

Departing National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and the National Security Council's counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, who was held over by Bush, gave Condoleezza Rice a series of urgent briefings on terrorism during the presidential transition in January 2001. "You're going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and al-Qaida specifically than any issue," Berger told his successor. Clarke delivered similar emphatic briefings to Vice President Cheney and to Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy. But the supposedly competent national security managers in the new administration, including Rice, Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were too preoccupied with other matters (such as national missile defense) to pay heed to the most serious threat since the end of the Cold War.

The failure of Bush's national security team to recognize the threat of al-Qaida, even after they were clearly warned, will rank among the most serious mistakes ever made by U.S. government officials. They had billed themselves as "the grown-ups," condescending to the Democrats they replaced and asserting that their experience would return steady guidance to American policy. Instead, these veterans of previous Republican administrations fumbled and fooled around with ancillary issues while an elusive new enemy prepared to strike. They weren't prepared. They had no plan. They hadn't seen what was coming. They had ignored the warnings. Their judgment was as deluded as their self-image.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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