NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
A sudden and unexpected debate over the sale of six American ports to a state- owned company in Dubai erupted here in Washington this week, raising issues about national security, free trade, allegations of opportunism and racism, and questions about the political skills of the White House.
Almost hourly, more politicians join a bipartisan chorus calling for the deal to be delayed, reconsidered, or just plain killed. Yesterday, President Bush promised to veto any such legislation, but his critics on this issue include the Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frisk, the Speak of the House, Dennis Hastert, and many prominent Democrats, as well.
At issue is a 6.8 billion dollar transfer of port operations in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, and New Orleans, from a British company, P&O, to Dubai World Ports: a company owned by Dubai, which is one of the United Arab Emerits.
Supporters say security at the ports would not be affected, and that a company based in the Middle-East should not be held to a different standard than one in Britain. Critics say that Dubai has been linked to terrorism, and they worry that the deal amounts to a big welcome mat for terrorists.
Later in the program, we'll visit the vibrant port of Venice in the Renaissance, and talk to Sarah Dunant about her new novel, In the Company of the Courtesan, but first, ports in a storm.
If you have questions about the deal and how it was handled, or about port operations and security, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK, and our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
As we mentioned, a whole chorus of Congressmen and Senators from both sides of he aisle have voiced concerns about this takeover. Thus far, only a few have expressed support for the White House's position on this matter. Senator John McCain, perhaps the most vocal of supporters on the takeover deal.
Far more security experts are scratching their heads over why this matter is causing worry in the first place. Joining us now is James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and he's with us from their studio here in Washington, D.C.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Dr. JAMES CARAFANO (senior fellow, Heritage Foundation): It's good to be with you.
CONAN: You see that there is no credible security concern, whatsoever?
Dr. CARAFANO: Well, let's go down the list. It's a foreign-owned company, but of course, the company's already foreign-owned. And most of the infrastructure in the maritime domain, whether it's the ships or the containers or the facilities at port, a great deal of it's foreign-owned. So, that's really irrelevant.
All the security is governed by what's called the International Shipping and Port Security Codes. These are actually codes that are modeled on United States law, that the U.S. suggested after 9-11. And any country that wants to do business in the United States, either with their ships, or the ports, or anything to do with the maritime domain, has to comply with the law.
And the company doesn't own the ports. It's just a tenant at the port. It operates facilities at the ports. The security at the ports is actually controlled by the U.S. government. The captain of the port is a U.S. Coast Guard Officer. The United States Coast Guard monitors compliance with the International Shipping and Port Security Code.
Customs and border protection inspects the containers and the people coming in the port, and, of course, the company we all know, is just a holding company. They don't have actually anything to do with the running of the port. Most of the people in the port are U.S. citizens.
And, you know, the bottom line is, you know, Dubai Ports wanted this because the UAE is trying to diversity its assets. They recognize that, you know, oil revenue is not going to on forever, and they're trying to find areas for growth and income. And maritime shipping is simply an area of growth and income.
And what they're really actually, really, really interested in, is the Asian ports, which is where all the real growth is. And the U.S. ports are just kind of a lucky kick-in. So, you know, if you wanted to open a gateway for terrorists in the United States, and you give me 6.8 billion dollars, I can do a heck of a lot more damage than anybody could inevitably, conceivably do by merely owning a company, which they have very little role in running.
CONAN: The Bush Administration cites the United Arab Emerits, and Dubai in particular, as an ally in the war on terrorism. U.S. ships in the fifth fleet, based there in the Persian Gulf, sometimes use port facilities in Dubai. They would, of course, be owned by this same company.
But the critics say two of the 9-11 hijackers came from the United Arab Emerits, and the UAE was just one of just three countries to recognize the government of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Dr. CARAFANO: Well, and of course, that was before 9-11. The point is, is there were citizens from the UAE what were involved in the 9-11 attacks. There was money that was laundered through UAE. But, of course, there was a huge cell in Hamburg, Germany, and there were terrorist cells throughout Western Europe and other countries. And certainly, no one, for example, would argue that we should kick Siemens or Mercedes-Benz out of the country.
There is no evidence, whatsoever, that the government of the UAE or Dubai was ever complicit in any terrorist activity. And indeed, since 9-11, they've been a staunch ally against terrorists. And they, you know, turned over two the high-level al-Qaeda operatives to the United States. I mean, the notion that they would make a 7 billion dollar investment, I mean, I would think that they would be the most concerned at making sure that terrorists didn't exploit that. And the fact that the company is owned by the government, I actually find very reassuring.
CONAN: And, the other question about it, of course, is the question, well, you know, wouldn't this company have access to a lot of information which the company itself, the country that owns the company, but some of its employees might be interested in transferring some of this information about vital security information, to terrorists.
Dr. CARAFANO: Yeah, of course, that's the most fallacious of all arguments, because, as you go through the domain, whether it's, there is all kinds of information available to anybody at any level from any country. You know, there is nothing in the maritime domain where you need super secret documents, or access to know where vulnerabilities are.
I mean, if a terrorist wants to penetrate, if they want to try to ship something, or something, they don't need to be the president of the company. I mean, look at the common sense test here. Drugs are smuggled into the United States every day. Humans are smuggled into the United States every day. Weapons are smuggled out of the United States everyday. None of those operations are done with the complicity of FedEx, or UPS, or any U.S. owned company. You know, people that try to penetrate and use the networks of travel and organization to do that, they don't need, or want access to the highest level.
For a matter of fact, if you were a terrorist organization, the last thing you would want to do is be involved in a 6.8 billion dollar deal, and get the world's attention on you. I mean, it just makes no sense. It doesn't match up with terrorist trade-craft on how they do business.
CONAN: We're talking about the ports in a storm. If you'd like to join the conversation our number is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And let's turn to Richard. Richard's with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
RICHARD (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.
RICHARD: I am less interested in the fact of the security risks of this deal than I am in the fact that Treasury Secretary John Snow, when he was head of CSX, sold part of that business to DP World for 1.15 billion dollars in 2004. And, that also, there seems to be a connection with someone in the, that Bush, named David Sanborn, that Bush just gave an appointment to. And this deal seems to be more business as usual in the Bush administration, and more about money than it is about anything else. And, also the fact that Bush seemed to know nothing about this until two or three days ago.
CONAN: Yeah, the White House said the President was unaware of this deal until it was finalized. James Carafano?
Dr. CARAFANO: Well, it is business as usual. It's business as usual for the last 30 years. I mean, for the last 30 years, the maritime industry has become globalized. And more and more global ownership is more and more common. It's nothing that's particular to the Bush administration. Deals like this happen all the time. They're incredibly unremarkable.
There is a review process. And the fact that the president didn't know any thing about it is actually a good thing, because there is a review process that's gone through, that has the representative federal agencies that check for national security and economic interests, and they rule on this. And it's done in a non-partisan way, which is exactly, I think, what we want.
The last thing, for example, I think we would want would be for Congress to be ruling on every asset change in the United States. I mean, then we would really politicize these things. We had lobbyists lining up to lobby Congress before. I could just imagine what it would be like if we politicized every single acquisition of a company in the United States. When there's a vital economic or national security interest at stake, there should be a review. That's why Congress created a law to have a non-partisan review of the process, and the process was done in a kind of regular, unremarkable manner.
RICHARD: You don't think that it suggests the conflict of interest that John Snow signed off? He headed the panel, but did the research on this, and signed off on it, and that he had previously done business with BP World in the past. You don't think that this is even a...
Dr. CARAFANO: Well, no I mean...
Dr. CARAFANO: Well, it doesn't really tell you anything. I mean, almost every federal official has been employed by the private sector at one time or another. So, the fact that they're employed in the private sector is irrelevant, and the point is, it's not just treasury. I mean, all the other, there are several other federal agencies involved, including defense and homeland security, and anybody could have raised a red flag. And, economically, it's a neutral deal for the U.S. economy.
I mean, the shift and the ownership of the ports from PNO to Dubai World Ports doesn't mean anything. Matter of fact, probably the worst thing that could happen is if Dubai World Ports said, okay, forget it. We don't want the American ports. We'll just take all the Asian ports and you sell the American ports to somebody else. Well, then you'd have a smaller company with less of an international presence. It'd be less competitive, and would actually drive up rates on imports in the United States. So, I think the only thing, I mean, like you could see downsize economically, but in terms of the transfer, I think it's neutral to the U.S. economy.
CONAN: Richard, thanks for the call.
RICHARD: Sure, thank you.
CONAN: And James Carafano, thank you so much for your time today.
Dr. CARAFANO: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He joined us from their studio here in Washington, D.C. A little bit later in the program, we'll be joined by Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut, who is one of those in favor of putting this deal on hold.
But joining us now is James Vande Heim, a White House Correspondent for The Washington Post. He's with us from The Post Studios here in Washington, D.C. Jim, nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. JIM VANDE HEIM (White House Correspondent, The Washington Post): Good to be here.
CONAN: And this deal has now taken up a lot of the White House's time over the past couple of days. Scott McClellan said at the briefing today, that in hindsight, the administration probably should have spent a little bit more time briefing Congress ahead of time.
Mr. VANDE HEIM: Yeah, we've heard a much softer and more compromising tone from the White House today. First, they're admitting that they probably should have been consulting Congress throughout the process. And they've also suggested that there'll be additional briefings in the days and weeks ahead, so they can allay any concerns that members of Congress have. I was on Air Force One yesterday with the president when he made his initial statement about the deal. And he was very agitated, and very sharp in his criticism of those members of Congress who are trying to hold up the deal, threatening to veto.
I think the White House decided they had to tone it down and not make this a confrontation of the White House versus Congress. But rather, you know, spend the next couple of days trying to share with Congress what, you know, what they learned from their review process. And try to get to a point where they could eventually approve this deal. I think what's interesting is, even after the president spoke yesterday, and then Scott McClellan spoke today, we've had a lot of Republicans come out and still criticize it as sharply as ever.
CONAN: And we'll have more on that when we come back after a short break. Jim Vande Heim, stay with us. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Neil Conan. This is TALK of the NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neil Conan in Washington. We're talking today about a deal that would allow an Arab company to take over six major U.S. seaports. The company that used to own them was British. Who's for the deal? Who isn't, and why?
Still with us is Jim Vande Heim, White House reporter for The Washington Post. And if you'd like to join the conversation 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. I apologize for mispronouncing your name, earlier. I may have confused you with a Dutch speed skater.
Mr. VANDE HEIM: That's okay, it happens all the time.
CONAN: Okay. Getting back, you were making the point just before the break that even more people seem to be coming out after the White House seemed to be taking a more conciliatory line. I think it was the former majority leader Tom Delay who said if President Bush does veto a bill like this, he'll lose the vote. It'll be overridden.
Mr. VANDE HEIM: That's what so amazing about this. I cannot recall a time during Bush's tenure in office where you've had this many prominent Republicans taking the president on, on a terrorism-related issue. Remember, this is the issue that, you know, a lot of Republicans credit for their victories in 2004 and 2002. They've been sort of unified in the approach to fighting terrorism, and now you have Republicans, and not just any Republicans. You know, Bill Frist, Denny Hastert, and other leaders of the Republican Party and Congress, essentially, questioning the president's commitment to keeping the country safe when it comes to ports, and allowing this deal to go through.
And I think that's what's so extraordinary about this, and I do not think the White House ever anticipated that there would be this ferocious of a response, and this persistent of a response from Congress.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Dave. Dave calling us from Manchester in New Hampshire.
DAVE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
DAVE: I'm feeling somewhat along the lines that this is really a big red herring. That it's a non-issue, and that, you know, a lot of the folks, the initial folks who seem to be leading the charge on this, I'm curious as to how many of them are up for re-election this fall. And they can take the chance here to be, quote/unquote, you know, "tough on terrorism," and yet now positioned to everything that folks seem to be not liking about President Bush, not that I'm a President Bush supporter.
CONAN: Well, in terms of, obviously, any member of the House of Representatives is up for election this year. Several members of the Senate who came out on this...
DAVE: You know, Senator Clinton, and a few others who are very prominent in the initial, you know, the initial shock at this.
CONAN: Democrats, Jim Vande Heim, up and down the east coast. They were out in front on this.
Mr. VANDE HEIM: No. Dave I think it was a really good point, pretty astute political observation. I think a lot of the members that are coming out here and criticizing the president either have tough races coming up in November, or they represent the states that have these ports. And I think their calculation is that if their...
Mr. VANDE HEIM: Right, on both sides of the aisle. And I think...
Mr. VANDE HEIM: ...their calculation is that if they're not out there fighting the president on this issue, and God forbid there were a terrorist attack because of something that got into that port, that that would just be devastating to them politically on a very personal level. So, I think they feel like they have to go out and challenge the president on this, because they're getting so much pressure from their constituents.
I think one of the unfortunate things, sometimes, about Congress, is that members are very reactive. And once somebody seizes on an issue that's easily demagogued, and I think this is an issue. There's a lot of facts out there that members don't know, and they're jumping out there in criticizing the president. Other people see this, and they jump on board, and as long as there's a lot of pressure coming from the grass roots, and if you listen to conservative talk radio, tune in to Fox for a couple of minutes, or listen to C-SPAN and these call in shows from Republicans, I have never heard the grass roots this upset at the president over a particular policy. I mean, even more so than the Harriet Myers debacle for Bush late last year.
So, they're responding to that, and I think that's why you saw Denny Hastert, Speaker of the House, who's probably been one of the staunchest supports of the president on almost every issue for the last five years, you know, make his statement after the president spoke yesterday, saying we still need to put this deal on hold.
CONAN: Dave, thanks for the call.
DAVE: Thank you.
CONAN: And Jim Vande Heim, one last question before we let you go, and that is that, well, the White House spent last week talking about the vice president's hunting accident, and it's spending this week talking about the brewing battle over the ports. What's happening to the president's agenda?
Mr. VANDE HEIM: It's not good for the White House. Sort of, rule number one in politics, you want to be defining the issue instead, of being defined by the issues. And I think ever since late last year, starting with the response to Katrina, you've had a White House playing defense, and that's never a place you want to be.
They find themselves not being able to talk about energy or healthcare or their so-called competitive initiative, which are the issues they want to be talking about over the next few weeks. Instead, they're talking about Cheney and the secrecy of the White House, and now they're talking about whether they're actually committed enough to combating terrorism as part of this port deal.
I think a lot of Republicans felt like the president should have been engaged in this issue over the weekend, when there was a lot of clamoring for Republicans, and a lot of lawmakers in those port cities that were raising concerns about it, and making sure that he would have been upfront defining this issue instead of now having to spend the next couple of days saying, whoa, what a second. There's a lot of misinformation out here. Let me clarify things, and clarify the process under which this thing was approved.
CONAN: Jim Vande Heim, thanks very much for the time today.
Mr. VANDE HEIM: Good to be here, have a good day.
CONAN: Jim Vande Heim reports on the White House for The Washington Post, and joined us from their studios here in Washington, D.C. Critics of the Dubai Ports World deal include both Democrats and Republicans. We're joined now by Congressman Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut. He's with us from his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Congressman, welcome. Thanks for being with us today.
Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): Thank you. It's nice to be on your program.
CONAN: And are you demagoguing this issue?
Representative SHAYS: Well, you know, I was thinking, and I told one of my staff, you know, there's a danger that you not demagogue it, and that I not demagogue it. So, you know, I think it's a fair question to raise. But I can just tell you what's in my heart of hearts. And, in my heart is this huge question about how we could not reconcile the fact that the 9/11 Commission said the following: we aren't fighting terrorism, as if it's some ethereal being. We're fighting Islamist terrorists, frankly, primarily, in the Middle East. We are dealing with Arab countries, to which not one has truly been definitive about its position about Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda.
They are simply very passive about the violence in the Islamic community, and so I had no comfort level, whatsoever, that we would allow, basically, an Arab state to be in charge of our ports.
CONAN: Two of the 9/11 hijackers came from the United Arab Emirates. But yesterday, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said that they have been outstanding partners in the war on terror since 9/11, and the country that owned these ports previously, Britain, certainly, last year, had its own problems with domestic, home-grown terrorists.
Representative SHAYS: Well, I mean, I think that's a fair point. I mean, you know, that there could be a failure, even of Great Britain, to operate these ports correctly, with some of their own constituencies. But, you know, with all do respect to what Mr. Rumsfeld said, this is the problem with the Arab community: they're on both sides of the equation.
There was times that we've asked the Saudis to increase the oil supply, to lower prices, and the Saudis have cooperated. There have been examples to which we can say, yes, they have shown great cooperation. But what Mr. Rumsfeld didn't say was, after September 11th, we had a significant problem with the Arab Emirates not cooperating, and seizing assets of Osama bin Laden.
There is no outrage, anywhere, about the beheadings of Islamic groups. But then there's an outrage, and they condone and they encourage outrage over a cartoon in a newspaper in Denmark. I mean, that's why I have such discomfort.
CONAN: A lot of people might say, Mr. Congressman, that those are you know sort of ad homonym attacks. I mean, I've not heard of any riots in the UAE.
Representative SHAYS: I'm missing a point that maybe you need to straighten me out on. When you have an Islamic community, almost in mass, become violent over a cartoon, be totally silent about the beheadings in Iraq of Americans and other totally innocent civilians, my view is, and I'd like to know how I'm wrong, they're really on both sides of the equation, and I don't think we can have someone on both sides of the equation running our ports. I just don't see how we can do that.
CONAN: Are you satisfied at all by reassurances that, in fact, they would not be in charge of security? That nothing would change? The Coast Guard and the Custom Service would remain in charge of security?
Representative SHAYS: Well, that's like saying the people that fly your airplanes aren't in charge of security. I disagree with that. I think that you have people at the gates, but I think you have people on the planes. I think they're all involved with security, so I think that's really an irrelevant point.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. And turn to Charlie. Charlie's with us from St. Augustine, in Florida.
CHARLIE (Caller): Hi can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes you're on the air, Charlie, please go ahead.
CHARLIE: Thank you very much for taking my call. You're my favorite radio program.
CONAN: Well, thank you.
CHARLIE: I am a merchant mariner. I work with Master Mates and Pilots, a merchant marine officer. I work on container ships, and I just completed an assignment, where our ship, our American Flag, our container ship, was home- ported in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and we shuttle back and forth to Kuwait, and most of our cargo was supplies for the military in Iraq, of course. And I just wanted to inform everybody that the United Arab Emirates, and especially the port of Jebel Ali, that's the main port for this small country, is the absolute most modern, well-run, well-managed, high-tech seaport in the world.
They have something like 50 to 60 ships going in and out of that port every day. It's, it's just high-tech, it's hard for me to explain to you in detail, but it's the most well-managed, secure seaport environment I've ever been in, and I've been in all seaports, all over the world, and part of my training, I'm required at least once every two years to take a two-week class in ship and port security.
And I can tell, you from my viewpoint, that our American seaports, the security there is a joke. It's an absolute joke, the security we have in our own seaports, and quite a few of our container seaports are failing, especially seaports like Baltimore, because of the most sloppy management by American companies and other companies. If United Arab Emirates ever came and started managing our seaports in the United States, it would be a relief.
I would feel much more secure, as a merchant mariner, working on a container ship at a seaport in the United States run by this company from Dubai, than I would from any American people running it. You know, I hate to say that, and I'm, I'm actually one of the worst anti-Bush administration people you'll ever find, but this is the very first thing the Bush administration's done that I agree with. The only thing.
CONAN: Okay, Charlie.
CHARLIE: It's funny, the knee jerk reaction, most, most, like the last Congressman you're talking to, he, I'm sorry to say, doesn't have a clue, he doesn't know the situation...
CONAN: You're still talking to him, Charlie.
Representative SHAYS: Charlie, Charlie, let me say something if I could. To say I don't have a clue is, is an interesting way to say that you and I disagree about some points, but I think you would be the kind of person that you would want to have at a hearing about this. We are asking, I'm just telling you what my fears and concern is. What we're asking is there be a review, that Congress look into it, that we have hearings. This was just all of a sudden, just kind of announced as a fact, and frankly, I think that's wrong. What I'm still wrestling with, though, is you basically have a government that's on two sides of the equation. They are helping us in Iraq. They do run efficient ports, and yet at the same time, they're very much silent to, and in my judgment, by being passive to encouraging the kind of, of terrorist behavior that we see in the Islamic community.
CONAN: Charlie, thanks very much for the call.
CHARLIE: Thank you.
CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Congressman Shays, Treasury Secretary John Snow said today that the implications of failing to approve this deal would be to tell the world that investments in the United States from certain parts of the world are not welcome.
Representative SHAYS: Well, you know what, and that's true. And we would be saying, certain types of investment from certain parts of the world are not welcome, and I think that is true. When are we going to say to the Islamic communities in the Middle East that they have to stand up and oppose what is happening in their countries, and in other countries like their country? When are we going to do that?
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Greg, and Greg's with us from Portland, Oregon.
GREG (Caller): Hi, there. It just seems to me like this is another habitual case of the president ignoring the law, the, since this is a company that's wholly owned or controlled by a foreign power, this is supposed to go through a 45-day review process. The administration appears to have just completely ignored the, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and done it's own thing.
CONAN: I'm not sure that's right, Greg. I think that process did go ahead.
GREG: There was a 25-day review process, but I don't believe there was a 45-day review process.
Representative SHAYS: No, no, but we weren't asking to do it. He has the option to do it, and we're saying, seize that option.
CONAN: But, there, the White House says there was a review, all the agencies involved, the Pentagon, the intelligence services, Homeland Security, everybody went through this process, and nobody said boo.
Representative SHAYS: Well, nobody said boo, but it was done pretty much quietly. It wasn't the kind of, it wasn't the kind of review that asked for public input.
GREG: But, I'd just note that the law was amended in 1993, and that that law states that the review is mandatory, the 45-day investigation is mandatory when they acquire, is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government, and the acquisition could result in the control of a person, could result in control of a person engaged in interstate commerce in the United States that could affect the national security of the United States.
CONAN: I think the White House said that that was an issue open to interpretation, but in any case, you're hearing Congressman Shays asking for greater review, in any case. Greg, thanks very much for the call. And Congressman Shays, where do you think this is going to go next? Do you expect legislation to be introduced next week? If it passed, do you expect the...
Representative SHAYS: The legislation will be introduced next week. If you saw legislation hit the floor of the House asking for a 45-day review, and giving Congress the ability to veto it, I think it would pass overwhelmingly. I think it would pass by a margin greater than the president's capability to, I think we would override a veto, is what I think.
CONAN: And you would vote to override the veto if, if...
Representative SHAYS: Well, I, well, no, let me just say, what I would, I would vote to override the veto, if the president opposed the bill that prevents us from having a second look. Absolutely.
CONAN: Congressman Shays, thanks very much for taking the time to be with us today.
Representative SHAYS: Thank you.
CONAN: Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, joined us from his home in the city of Bridgeport, not all that far away from New York City, where one of those ports is located.
We're going to take a short break, and when we come back, we'll talking about a dwarf, a courtesan, and the spell of Venice in the 16th century. Novelist Sarah Dunant will join us and talk about her new book, In The Company of the Courtesan. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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