Ali Al-Marri: Terrorist?

Ali al-Marri, the last man held in the U.S. as a suspected terrorist, pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism. His case is being seen as an important indicator of the Obama administration's plans for handling suspected terrorists. Jane Mayer is covering the story for The New Yorker.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The last man held in the United States as an enemy combatant pleaded not guilty yesterday to federal charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism. Ali al-Marri has been in the United States' custody and held in a Navy brig in South Carolina in austere conditions for nearly six years without being charged. What happens to and how al-Marri is handled is being seen as an important indicator of how the Obama administration plans to process suspected terrorists, including the over 240 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jane Mayer has been covering the story of al-Marri for the New Yorker.

She joins us in a moment with all the details, including some substantial evidence that might suggest al-Marri was more than just a visiting student. We do have a question for you though: When there is credible evidence of a possible terrorist threat, what do you want the government to do with the suspects? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals." She's here with us in Studio 3A. Jane, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. JANE MAYER (Staff Writer, New Yorker; Author): Great to be with you.

STEWART: So you wrote this really great, extensive long piece last month about al-Marri, and I want to back up and do a little bit of a time line. I'll start off, and then I'm going to hand it over to you. He comes to the United States in the late '80s to study. He graduates from Bradley University in Peoria in '91. He's got a degree in business. And then he returns to his home country of Qatar in '91. He won't come back to the United States for another 10 years. What is he alleged to have done in that 10 years?

Ms. MAYER: Well, at some point, according to the US government, he trained as a fighter for al-Qaida in one of training camps in Afghanistan. So, that is - you know, one of the things it's odd about this case is that none of us had ever seen the evidence against this man. It's never come out in an open court. He's been held without any of the normal procedures. All there is is kind of an affidavit from a top intelligence official who laid out a bunch of charges against him. And that's what we know about him.

STEWART: All right. So during that time, it is believed that he trained in a camp in Afghanistan. He married. He had children. What was his life like?

Ms. MAYER: Well, he has five children. And he then decided to come back to the United States to get a business degree at the same place where he had gotten his undergraduate degree. And he arrived in - on a day when the timing was considered pretty suspect. He arrived on the day before the 9/11 attacks.

STEWART: So he comes into the country on September 10th, 2001.

Ms. MAYER: Right. Stayed in a motel the first night with his wife and his kids. They rented a van. They drove out towards Peoria, where he was going to be going to school. And he almost immediately started attracting attention of curiosity seekers, basically, law enforcement people who had questions about him. He…

STEWART: What were some of the behaviors that caught people's attention?

Ms. MAYER: Well, his…

STEWART: Or alleged behaviors, I should say.

Ms. MAYER: His ID materials, when he tried to buy things, he seemed to have multiple identification materials that had different dates for his date of birth. He -eventually, there were enough questions about him that the FBI stopped by his house and asked if they could take a look. He said, sure, take a look at his house and his van and even take a look at his laptop. And when they did, they claimed later that they found emails that were encrypted, that they believed were going to be sent to same address where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the planner of 9/11, also had an email address.

It looked like they were going to be in correspondence with each other, according to the federal authorities. So he seemed to have contacts -with levels of al-Qaida. He also seemed to have gotten a huge amount of cash that he was carrying in a briefcase, which also seemed to have come from one of the bankrollers of the 9/11 attacks. So this is all, you know, very suspicious kinds of things. They didn't have enough information on him to charge him with terrorist crimes right away. So they charged him with credit card fraud and bank fraud.

STEWART: Because he used different names. He'd used false names, a false social security number at one point.

Ms. MAYER: Right.

STEWART: But there was an interesting detail in your article that one of - two of the ways that people - that he became known to the authorities is once he got caught by a police officer with - he had a old drunk driving charge that came up in the system.

Ms. MAYER: That's right and so they pulled him over. But I have a feeling that they - you know, right after 9/11, you have to remember people were on such high alert, they saw this man who probably seemed Arab with his wife who was very foreign, speaks no English and his kids in this van, and he did not fit in Peoria right away.

STEWART: Doesn't sound like it. The other was a cell phone salesman noted a - noticed a discrepancy.

Ms. MAYER: That's right. And so piece by piece, there were questions raised about him in the long way, and federal authorities were notified and they began to start taking a closer look at him. And when they did, they certainly were uncomfortable with what they found.

STEWART: And so he was arrested.

Ms. MAYER: He was arrested first as a material witness to the 9/11 attacks, and then when there was more information, he was charged with these crimes that are, again, not terrorist crimes, not at that time. It's only recently, now, finally, that he's actually been charged in connection with terrorism. They didn't have enough evidence, they felt, to do that at the time.

So he was held. He was moving through the regular criminal system in America towards a regular trial when, in June of 2003, just before he was about to stand trail, a very unusual order came down from the top of the Bush administration. It was signed by President Bush, and it declared that al-Marri was an enemy combatant, and that he had to be transferred out of the custody of the criminal justice system and into the military system, and it said that he could in effect be held there until the end of the war on terrorism, which as we know has never been defined exactly.

So basically from that point on, from June, 2003, al-Marri was transferred into the brig, the naval brig, in Charleston, South Carolina, and he just sat there, not knowing if he would ever get out.

STEWART: The conditions that are described in the brig are extreme. Can you describe his early-on conditions, and also a little bit how they changed over time?

Ms. MAYER: For the first 16 months, al-Marri was held in the way that many of the high-value detainees that the CIA held were, which were - which is to say in very harsh kinds of circumstances. He was, in fact, held in complete isolation.

It's really unusual, but he was - we have solitary confinement in this country. He was not allowed to have a single conversation with anyone, and he was not allowed to read anything, see anything. The window was blacked out in his cell. He was deprived of anything that was tactile. He had a metal bed.

STEWART: A non-suicide blanket.

Ms. MAYER: A non-suicide blanket, and basically he was kept cold for most of the time, no socks and no - the most difficult thing, according to authorities who really understand this kind of psychological duress, is just that being cut off from humankind completely causes people to have all kinds of emotional issues, which they kind of descend inside their own brains and often lose touch with reality.

STEWART: Now, he's maintained his innocence this whole time, correct?

Ms. MAYER: He has, yes. He has. In fact, he was - if you go back over the case, which I did carefully, it seems that the reason he was transferred out of the criminal justice system and into this strange kind of limbo was in large part because he continually said he was innocent and refused to work with authorities.

He wouldn't confess, and they wanted him to confess and provide information, and he wouldn't do it, and there was a tremendous amount of frustration inside the Justice Department, and John Ashcroft, who was attorney general at the time, has written about this in his memoirs.

They couldn't so-called break him, so they decided to put him into the military system, where they could treat him even more harshly.

STEWART: That was one of my big questions. In reading this, I thought this one - all of this focus on this one person.

Ms. MAYER: Well, they thought he knew so much. You have to go back to trying to recreate the mindset at the time.

STEWART: Sure.

Ms. MAYER: 2003. People were really frightened in this country. 9/11 was pretty fresh in people's minds, and they thought - I mean they really thought that he may have been - and some people think he may still be -a sleeper cell agent waiting to launch a second wave of attacks in America.

One of the things I failed to mention was that in his laptop there was also information about the use of poisonous chemicals that could be used in kind of a chemical attack.

STEWART: So you had the cash in the briefcase, the encrypted e-mails to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, you had allegedly all of the information about creating a poisonous gas. And so the government or the authorities really thought they could get something else out of this person, or perhaps he really was significantly dangerous.

Ms. MAYER: Well, they certainly wanted to, and they thought at this point - I mean, this was right at the height of the period where the Bush administration declared that it had executive powers to pretty much pick up anyone anywhere in the world.

They could define who was an enemy combatant, and they could hold them indefinitely till the end of war on terror, including in this case a legal resident.

Al-Marri was legally in this country to study, and they said that the war on terror, the battlefield, was around the whole globe, including inside the United States, and they could pick him up and hold him and subject him to harsh treatment.

STEWART: He was not allowed to see his family?

Ms. MAYER: He was not allowed. He still has not seen his family.

STEWART: Not allowed to see lawyers for how long?

Ms. MAYER: Sixteen months they were kept out, and then eventually the lawyers pushed their arguments all the way up through the courts and finally got access to him.

STEWART: And it's interesting. At one point in your article you write that some of the staff at the military brig in South Carolina, they realized how extreme his treatment was and were troubled by it.

Ms. MAYER: This is true. I mean, and so - I mean, in fact, in contrast to the way the military behaved in Abu Ghraib, where they seemed to fall into, you know, patterns of horrible abuse, in the brig they were trained to be professional wardens, really, and they were very troubled by what the Bush administration was subjecting him to.

STEWART: We're (unintelligible) a conversation with Jane Mayer, who is a staff writer with the New Yorker and the author of "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into the War on American Ideals." She's helping walk us through this story of Ali al-Marri.

We'll continue this conversation. Also, NPR's Jackie Northam will join us. She's our national security correspondent. We do want to hear from you on this issue as well. How should we deal with suspected terrorists? We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. You can also send us an e-mail. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Alison Stewart. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. We're talking about the case of Ali al-Marri, a native of Qatar who had been held in prison in the United States six, seven years, most of it in solitary confinement at a South Carolina military brig.

The Obama administration recently transferred his case from military to federal court, and yesterday al-Marri pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism.

Al-Marri's case is a bit of a test for the Obama administration when it comes to preventative detention; in other words, possible terrorists that have not necessarily committed a crime.

We do want to get you to weigh in on this problem. When there's credible evidence of a possible terrorist threat, what do you want the government to do with the suspects? The number is 1-800-989-8255. Our e-mail is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're discussing this subject with Jane Mayer, who has written a really terrific article in the New Yorker about the al-Marri case. And Jane, we were talking during the quick break, and they never got anything out of al-Marri, no information, correct?

Ms. MAYER: Well, this is really the irony of the sort of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that were used during this period, which is for the most part they yielded very little, and in al-Marri's case they yielded nothing. He never did tell them what they wanted to hear. He's never confessed to anything wrong and in fact continues to say that he's innocent.

STEWART: Pleaded not guilty yesterday.

Ms. MAYER: He did.

STEWART: And from here, where does this go?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it's now going to follow the course of a regular American trial, which is what Obama ran on. Basically he said he was going to try to restore the rule of law in this country. Opponents said, oh, you're going back to the pre-9/11 mindset.

He's been arguing, and his people have been arguing, that the courts in this country are up to trying terrorists, and so they are going to try to put him on trial.

STEWART: Let's bring in NPR's national security correspondent, Jackie Northam. Thanks for joining us in the studio.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Thank you, Alison.

STEWART: We're talking a little bit about how this particular case could really be a signpost for how the Obama administration is going to handle these unique situations. What do you take from what happened yesterday?

NORTHAM: Well, it's interesting. It's like Jane said: I mean, this is what the Obama - President Obama ran on during his campaign, certainly. It's going to be slightly different with Guantanamo because it's obviously not one person. It's about 245 people, and the administration says that it's reviewing each and every case and the evidence against, if there is any evidence against, each of the detainees.

And apparently the evidence is just completely - you know, you have some strewn all over the world. Others it's not collated, nothing like that. So it's going to be very difficult. But they are definitely looking at what they're going to do with these detainees and how they're going to try them, the ones that they are going to try, and that's not at all clear.

I mean, there's various systems that they can try. They can do, you know, like al-Marri. They'll put them through the regular federal court system. They might use the military system, the UCMJ, and just tweak it a little bit so it can, you know, incorporate these fellows.

And that system would be quite good because that can be done anywhere in the world. The other talk that is out there is that they might set up, they might create, a national security court, and this way you could introduce classified evidence much more easily.

I'm not certain about hearsay because this would all be brand new. The only problem with that system is people are complaining that sounds a little bit too much what they actually have at Guantanamo at the moment. So various things all under review at this point, but again, this, you know, putting al-Marri through federal court actually probably portends what - they will try some of them.

STEWART: I would love to get some definition of terms, because that's part of the issue here. Who is a civilian? Who is an enemy combatant? Who is a detainee? Can you help me understand that?

NORTHAM: Well, I mean this has really been the issue all along, is that there - it's clear under the laws of war that there are prisoners of war, and it's clear under criminal law that there are criminal prisoners.

But what the Bush administration argued was that there's some kind of status - there's a person that is a terror suspect that's neither fish nor fowl. It's not really a standard army person, you know, a military detainee, and it's not a criminal, and that's what they've been arguing about, really - is there really a third category here, or can you sort these people in the ordinary way and treat them in the regular - under the usual systems of law.

STEWART: And that - is that where the court that you're talking about, perhaps the new kind of court, would handle this neither fish nor fowl?

NORTHAM: Could be. I think you just talking about the enemy combatant status. Is that correct?

STEWART: Right.

NORTHAM: Yeah, and that - actually, just earlier this month, the Obama administration did away with that status completely.

STEWART: Did away with that, right?

NORTHAM: But still said, you know, they were going - I'm sorry, they said they were going to try them under international law. What they did not make clear at the time, though - and this is very key to what Jane was talking about too - is that whether the president does have the right to hold somebody indefinitely.

They're going to get rid of that status, which was so contentious certainly, but that - the part about this preventive detention that has still not been cleared up, and what this does with al-Marri's case when they decide to try him in federal court, is it really sort of side-stepped that decision at this point. It's deferred it for a little while.

So we'll see what happens. But that is going to be - it's going to be interesting to see what the government does with that.

STEWART: Let's take a couple of callers. We've got Mike, who's actually calling us from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Hi, Michael.

MIKE (Caller): Good afternoon.

STEWART: Let's hear your thoughts.

MIKE: Well, currently - I heard the laws of war mentioned, and that is for active-duty military personnel. Unfortunately, the people we fought in Afghanistan and Iraq do not fall under the same - they don't play by our rules, and personally I think that if they're held indefinitely or whatever, until things come out that they're proven innocent, then that's too bad because no military personnel, American or otherwise, is even give the chance to have legal custody. We're not give - I mean, most military personnel who've been caught by the extremists have been killed.

NORTHAM: You know, there are…

STEWART: Thank you, Michael.

NORTHAM: There are an awful lot of people who think that the laws of war only cover uniformed combatants. That's absolutely not true. The laws of war that we're talking about are the Geneva Conventions, and they have categories that cover pretty much anybody you can think of.

They're - it's not just the uniformed soldiers, but it's also civilians, and then there's a category of neither, that's basically spies and saboteurs, kind of illegal combatants, the enemy that might not be wearing a uniform.

And that - there are particular laws that cover how you can treat them, and those laws were ignored during the last administration.

STEWART: In the case of al-Marri, why didn't they believe that the criminal court system would handle his case? There were several lawyers you spoke to in the article who said, you know, the criminal courts could've handled this. They had plenty of information to possibly convict him on some of those counts they originally arrested him on.

Ms. MAYER: Well, to some extent al-Marri was a demonstration project of the tremendous executive powers that the lawyers in the Bush administration felt that the president had as commander-in-chief. They wanted to show that they could pick up somebody in the United States and hold them indefinitely. They felt that they could, and he became sort of the test case of it in many ways. He and two other people were picked up inside the United States.

So you know, there was - partly they did it because they could. They also did it because they didn't think that in the criminal system they would be able to interrogate him in the way that they wanted to. That's what's come out more recently.

NORTHAM: Jane, can I just ask? Is there - do they have any evidence to present in court against al-Marri?

Ms. MAYER: Well, I'm sure that they will. I don't think they would have ever charged him if they didn't feel they had reason to, and they have charged him as - you know, in pretty serious charges, material support for terrorism, and conspiracy.

There is an affidavit that lays out most of what they know about him, which came out years ago, and nobody else has seen the evidence since. In fact, there's a piece in the New York Times today in which al-Marri's defense lawyer, Andy Savage, says, you know, he has yet to see the evidence against him.

STEWART: Let's talk to Steve in Portland. Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I think the decision on how to treat these suspects should be somewhat relative depending on which country - what their country of origin is and what their standards are. Also, there's an awful lot of over-thinking going on. I think simple expedited deportation processes should be employed and then a preponderance of evidence should be sufficient to that, not necessarily, you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

STEWART: All right, Steve.

STEVE: And I'd just like to throw that out there and I'll take your comments offline. Thanks.

STEWART: Thanks, Steve. We appreciate it. One of the ideas in terms of Guantanamo, Jackie, that we've heard is - you've heard it repeatedly, especially from the lawmakers in Kansas, is we don't want the people from Guantanamo at Leavenworth, we don't want these people in our state. Is that a real possibility, that some of the men from Guantanamo being held will end up in the United States?

NORTHAM: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean that's - what your caller was just asking there too, why can't we just deport them, well, believe me, if the U.S., even in the last administration, could deport a lot of these guys, they certainly would have. They're trying at the moment, trying to get rid of 60 people right now. It's just too difficult. But in lieu of that, and if they want to try them here, then certainly they're going to bring them back onto the mainland.

And as you said, I mean in Leavenworth there's been this hue and cry. But let me tell you, that is in every community where they have either a maximum security prison where they could put these guys or a military facility where they could put these guys. The other thing is pure logistics. I mean there's - you got to put 245 - you know, places like Leavenworth, where they - I'm pulling this off the top of my head - but I think it had like 40 beds, you know? And others, Supermax had 20 or something. They just don't have the capacity for this. So they might have to build a facility. Well, you know how fast those things go through.

STEWART: Yeah.

NORTHAM: I mean, and they've got - tick tock, you know? We've got less than a year now. So…

Ms. MAYER: I don't know. I mean the thing is, I think some of this is so overblown because our criminal justice system has tried, convicted, and held terrorists for years. The 1993 al-Qaida bombers of the first World Trade Center bombing were - unlike the Guantanamo suspects, who have never really been given any kind of justice or convicted in any sort of satisfying way, those bombers were convicted and sentenced to life and they're serving in Florence, Colorado. It hasn't turned Colorado into a wing of al-Qaida. And you know, I just see that a certain amount of this is just kind of political hoo-hah, really. And I just don't - and you know…

NORTHAM: But it's real…

Ms. MAYER: I mean, and also - well, the one case here, you've got one case with one - you know, supposedly the most serious enemy combatant we've got in this country ever, a sleeper cell agent for al-Qaida, has been down in Charleston, South Carolina for the last six years. And inside the brig down in South Carolina, it's completely improbable but the people there really enjoy this guy. He's been - and he, you know, he…

STEWART: But define enjoy for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAYER: Well, he turns to be a very unusual personality. Whether he's a member of al-Qaida or not, this is - it's irrelevant. But he is, day to day, somebody who they enjoy bantering with. They have given him exercise equipment. They've given him a TV set. They've given him a library of books. He sends jokes to the warden all the time on little scraps of paper.

STEWART: How did he go from sensory deprivation to having a television and a treadmill?

Ms. MAYER: He has a very seductive personality. And if you talk to his defense lawyers, they adore him. It is the strangest thing. But it's very interesting. He is smart. He came to this country, got an undergraduate degree, came back for another degree. He's articulate and he has a sense of humor. I, you know, he loves to watch "Oprah." His favorite news source is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He's not what you might - he's not the dehumanized picture that you might have from listening to, you know, the descriptions of al-Qaida, people chewing through hydraulic cable.

He's more charming. It might make him more dangerous in some ways. But it's not the same thing that people sort of imagine.

STEWART: I do want to get some more callers in here. Colin, you're from Marietta, Ohio?

COLIN (Caller): Hi, yes. Thank you for taking my call.

STEWART: Sure.

COLIN: I wanted to comment on saying however we deal these so-called enemy combatants or, you know, and people who've been detained, it needs to be in a light that's seen by the rest of world as, you know, humane and just, because I think that's what this country is built on. And if we go against that, I think it's just going to encourage younger, you know, people in these Arab countries to, you know, become terrorists. And I'll take my comments off air. Thank you.

STEWART: All right, Colin, thank you so much. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Jane and Jackie, either one of you can answer this. We're getting a lot of calls that are asking the same questions. I'm trying to paraphrase here. Why can't we use the regular U.S. court system for this?

NORTHAM: We can.

Ms. MAYER: We're trying.

NORTHAM: We're trying it.

Ms. MAYER: We're trying. That is very much what Obama is trying to do. There are issues that people worry about. Reasonable people worry that there may be, as Jackie mentioned, issues of classified evidence. But there are actually - where you don't want to expose classified evidence to an open court. But there are ways you can take it in camera, behind the scenes, to the judge.

There are also sometimes complicated intelligence issues where it might come out in a way that our government doesn't want who the U.S. government worked with to - maybe to capture the detainee in question. You know, sometimes other countries help us but don't want their own populations to know it. But again, there are ways, there are procedures that have been set up for things like this. So in many ways the al-Marri case is a good test case.

Another big problem is that a number of the people during the past years of the war on terrorism who we have held alleged that they were abused or even tortured. And if that's the case, it might provide them an out in a court case. There's a worry that maybe they'll get off on so-called technicalities.

NORTHAM: The other thing, too, is when you put somebody through the federal court system and actually run the risk of acquittal, which sort of opens up another problem if somebody is acquitted for lack of evidence or for torture, whatever like that, then what do you do with them? Do you let them walk out the front door of the courthouse? Do you try to get rid of them again? We're having problems with that anyway. So the other thing - problem too - is it might - the Zacharias Moussaoui trial ended up something being just this side of a circus. And I think probably the courts have learned from that, but I think that's sort of a fear as well.

Ms. MAYER: May I actually disagree on Jackie on that one thing? From my standpoint, everybody was saying the Moussaoui trial was going to be a circus…

STEWART: Let's remind people that Zacharias Moussaoui was thought to have been one of the hijackers…

Ms. MAYER: Yet another hijacker…

STEWART…on 9/11.

Ms. MAYER: He probably wasn't a part of the original 9/11 group, but he was somebody who seemed very suspicious and might have been waiting to carry out some later plan. Anyway, he was put on trial in the Northern District of Virginia, and - is it the Northern District? The Eastern District of Virginia, I think it's called. It's in Northern Virginia. And the trial was a bit wild at times, I agree.

NORTHAM: It was a challenge.

Ms. MAYER: But I - what I think is that there's - from my standpoint there's no better advertisement for the American system of justice than an open trial where the rest of the world can see that there's justice being done. It's not like throwing someone in a dungeon someplace.

STEWART: Got a few seconds left. Jackie, who will be involved in crafting the Obama administration's policy on this?

NORTHAM: Just about everybody. Certainly all the human rights people, legal minds, military folks and JAGs, well, some military lawyers, that type of thing. They've been involved with this for months now, and some really bright, bright minds. And so we're just waiting to see. Obviously the Justice Department, the Pentagon, everybody else. Everybody and his dog, frankly.

STEWART: And, Jane, al-Marri, May 26 is the next time we'll see him in court, I believe?

Ms. MAYER: I guess that's right.

STEWART: Okay. Jane Mayer, she wrote a fantastic article. It was in the New Yorker on Ali al-Marri. Please read it. Jackie Northam, NPR national correspondent, national security correspondent. Thank you for coming in and walking us through this.

Coming up on TALK OF THE NATION, Treasury Security Timothy Geithner spend a good deal of time in front of Congress today explaining why he needs a new regulatory authority, and we'll explain what that might mean next. Plus, a long overdue reward. Peter Sagal will be joining us. We'll explain why.

I'm Alison Stewart. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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