From Russia, with Loathing

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Well well well…..could it be that the entire GOP is complicit in the election tampering?  That’s the latest juicy tidbit of gossip floating around in these waning days of 2017. 

As Salon.com reports: “At this point, these Russian agents are just extensions of the Republican political operation, which has been at the disinformation and propaganda game for a long time and which is obviously happy to have help from outside experts. Indeed, it’s hard to know who’s leading and who’s following at this point. Maybe special counsel Robert Mueller can unravel that for us too.”

This conclusion from Salon was reached, in part, from a stunning Washington Post expose published on Christmas titled “Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options.”  Here are some critical excerpts from that piece, with emphasis added by yours truly:

The first email arrived in the inbox of CounterPunch, a left-leaning American news and opinion website, at 3:26 a.m. — the middle of the day in Moscow.“Hello, my name is Alice Donovan and I’m a beginner freelance journalist,” read the Feb.?26, 2016, message. The FBI was tracking Donovan as part of a months-long counterintelligence operation code-named “NorthernNight.” Internal bureau reports described her as a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls seeking to undermine America’s democratic institutions.

Her first articles as a freelancer for CounterPunch and at least 10 other online publications weren’t especially political. As the 2016 presidential election heated up, Donovan’s message shifted. Increasingly, she seemed to be doing the Kremlin’s bidding by stoking discontent toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and touting WikiLeaks, which U.S. officials say was a tool of Russia’s broad influence operation to affect the presidential race.

“There’s no denying the emails that Julian Assange has picked up from inside the Democratic Party are real,” she wrote in August 2016 for a website called We Are Change. “The emails have exposed Hillary Clinton in a major way — and almost no one is reporting on it.”

The events surrounding the FBI’s NorthernNight investigation follow a pattern that repeated for years as the Russian threat was building: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions. Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement, a fear of making matters worse or a misguided belief in the resilience of American society and its democratic institutions.

In a nutshell, the US Intel community didn’t understand how serious the Russian cyber attack was, and since it was beneficial to the GOP, once discovered the powers that be decided to play along.  The article continues:

The miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia that left the United States vulnerable to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election trace back to decisions made at the end of the Cold War, when senior policymakers assumed Moscow would be a partner and largely pulled the United States out of information warfare. When relations soured, officials dismissed Russia as a “third-rate regional power” that would limit its meddling to the fledgling democracies on its periphery.

Senior U.S. officials didn’t think Russia would dare shift its focus to the United States. “I thought our ground was not as fertile,” said Antony J. Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state. “We believed that the truth shall set you free, that the truth would prevail. That proved a bit naive.”

The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an all-out information battle during the Cold War. But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the Bill Clinton administration and Congress in 1999 shuttered America’s preeminent global information agency.“They thought it was all over and that we’d won the propaganda war,” said Joseph D. Duffey, the last director of the U.S. Information Agency, which was charged with influencing foreign populations.

So we dropped the ball after Clinton took office, and that left the door open for Putin to put his KGB training to good use:

When President Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia began searching for ways to make up for its diminished military. Officials seized on influence campaigns and cyberwarfare as equalizers. Both were cheap, easy to deploy and hard for an open and networked society such as the United States to defend against.

Early warning signs of the growing Russian disinformation threat included the 2005 launch of RT, the Kremlin-funded TV network, and the 2007 cyberattacks that overwhelmed Estonia’s banks, government ministries and newspapers. A year later, the Kremlin launched a digital blitz that temporarily shut down Georgia’s broadcasters and defaced the website of its president.

Closer to home for Americans, Russian government trolls in 2012 went after a U.S. ambassador for the first time on social media, inundating his Twitter account with threats.

But for U.S. officials, the real wake-up call came in early 2014 when the Russians annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. An intercepted Russian military intelligence report dated February 2014 documented how Moscow created fake personas to spread disinformation on social media to buttress its broader military campaign.

The classified Russian intelligence report, obtained by The Washington Post, offered examples of the messages the fake personas spread. “Brigades of westerners are now on their way to rob and kill us,” wrote one operative posing as a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. “Morals have been replaced by thirst for blood and hatred toward anything Russian.”

Officials in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence branch, drafted the document as part of an effort to convince Kremlin higher-ups of the campaign’s effectiveness. Officials boasted of creating a fake Facebook account they used to send death threats to 14 politicians in southeastern Ukraine.

Five days into the campaign, the GRU said, its fake accounts were garnering 200,000 views a day.  The Ukraine operation offered the Americans their first glimpse of the power of Russia’s post-Cold War playbook.

In March 2014, Obama paid a visit to NATO headquarters, where he listened as unnerved allies warned him of the growing Russia threat. Aides wanted to give the president options to push back.

In the White House Situation Room a few weeks later, they pitched him on creating several global channels — in Russian, Mandarin and other languages — that would compete with RT. The proposed American versions would mix entertainment with news programing and pro-Western propaganda.

The president brushed aside the idea as politically impractical.

In the Situation Room that day was Richard Stengel, the undersecretary for public diplomacy at the State Department, who, like Obama, disliked the idea.

“There were all these guys in government who had never created one minute of TV content talking about creating a whole network,” said Stengel, the former top editor at Time magazine. “I remember early on telling a friend of mine in TV that people don’t like government content. And he said, ‘No, they don’t like bad content, and government content sucks.’?”

So Stengel began to look for alternatives to counter the threat. Across Eastern Europe and Ukraine, Russian-language channels mixing entertainment, news and propaganda were spreading the Kremlin’s message. Stengel wanted to help pro-Western stations on Russia’s periphery steal back audiences from the Russian stations by giving them popular American television shows and movies.

Stengel got Voice of America to launch a round-the-clock Russian-language news broadcast and found a few million dollars to translate PBS documentaries on the Founding Fathers and the American Civil War into Russian for broadcast in eastern Ukraine. He had wanted programing such as “Game of Thrones” but would instead have to settle for the likes of Ken Burns.

We brought a tiny, little Swiss Army knife to a gunfight,” he said.

So the counterintel-cyber-info attack never happened in the US and we were left exposed and vulnerable to Russian interference. What about a counter-propaganda campaign? Looks like Clapper nixed that idea. Read on:

The task of countering what the Russians were doing fell to a few underfunded bureaucrats at the State Department who journeyed to the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon and the FBI searching for help and finding little.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of 9/11 prioritized counterterrorism. They worried about the legal peril of snooping on social media and inadvertently interfering with Americans’ communications. The State Department created a small team to tweet messages about Ukraine, but they were vastly outnumbered by the Russian trolls.

Frustrated U.S. officials concluded that the best information on Russia’s social media campaign in Ukraine wasn’t coming from U.S. intelligence agencies, but from independent researchers. In April 2015, Lawrence Alexander, a 29-year-old self-taught programmer who lived with his parents in Brighton, Britain, received an unexpected Twitter message from a State Department official who reported to Stengel.

“Can you show what [the Russians] are swarming on in real time?” the official, Macon Phillips, asked. “Your work gave me an idea.”

A few months later, Phillips requested an in-person meeting. Alexander, who suffers from a genetic disorder that often leaves him chronically fatigued, wasn’t able to make the two-hour trek to the U.S. Embassy in London. So Phillips took the train to Brighton, where Alexander walked him through his research, which was spurred by his alarm over Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and his crackdown on gays and journalists.

Phillips’s ideas sprang from his work on Obama’s first presidential campaign, which used social media analytics to target supporters. One proposal now was to identify “online influencers” who were active on social media spreading Kremlin messages. Phillips wanted to use analytics to target them with U.S. counterarguments.

State Department lawyers, citing the Privacy Act, demanded guarantees that data on Americans using social media wouldn’t inadvertently be collected as part of the effort.

The pre-Internet law restricts the collection of data related to the ways Americans exercise their First Amendment rights. The lawyers concluded that it applied to tweets, leaving some State Department officials baffled.

“When you tweet, it’s public,” said Moira Whelan, a former deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy. “We weren’t interested in Americans.”

The lawyers’ objections couldn’t be overcome. The project, which Phillips worked on for more than a year, was dead.

Yet again, the US dropped the ball on preventing the Russians from unleashing Donald Trump on us:

While Stengel and Phillips were struggling to make do with limited resources, the CIA, at the direction of Obama’s top national security advisers, was secretly drafting proposals for covert action.

Russia hawks in the administration wanted far-reaching options that, they argued, would convince Putin that the price he would pay for continued meddling in the politics of neighboring democracies would be “certain and great,” said a former official involved in the debate.

One of the covert options that officials discussed called for U.S. spy agencies to create fake websites and personas on social media to fight back against the Kremlin’s trolls in Europe. Proponents wanted to spread anti-Kremlin messages, drawing on U.S. intelligence about Russian military activities and government corruption. But others doubted the effectiveness of using the CIA to conduct influence operations against an adversary that operated with far fewer constraints. Or they objected to the idea of U.S. spies even doing counterpropaganda.

James R. Clapper Jr., the top spy in the Obama administration, said in an interview that he didn’t think the United States “should emulate the Russians.”

Another potential line of attack involved using cyberweapons to take down Russian-controlled websites and zap servers used to control fake Russian personas — measures some officials thought would have little long-term effect or would prompt Russian retaliation. The covert proposals, which were circulated in 2015 by David S. Cohen, then the CIA’s deputy director, divided the administration and intelligence agencies and never reached the national security cabinet or the president for consideration. Cohen declined to comment.

Oops, that was a mistake, eh?  No counterpropaganda or counter cyber attack to stop the Russian trolls.  Bad mistake.  Obama was short-sighted to, deciding to “wait and see” when the 2016 election approached. It continues:

After top White House officials received intelligence in the summer of 2016 about Putin’s efforts to help Trump, the deadlocked debate over covert options to counter the Kremlin was revived. Obama was loath to take any action that might prompt the Russians to disrupt voting. So he warned Putin to back off and then watched to see what the Russians would do.

After the election, Obama’s advisers moved to finalize a package of retaliatory measures.

Officials briefly considered rushing out an overarching new order, known as a presidential finding, that for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union would authorize sweeping covert operations against Russia. But they opted against such a far-reaching approach. Instead, the White House decided on a targeted cyber-response that would make use of an existing presidential finding designed to combat cyberthreats around the world rather than from Russia specifically.

As a supplement to the cyber finding, Obama signed a separate, narrower order, known as a “Memorandum of Notification,” which gave the CIA the authority to plan operations against Russia. Senior administration and intelligence officials discussed a half-dozen specific actions, some of which required implants in Russian networks that could be triggered remotely to attack computer systems.

Members of the Obama administration expected that the CIA would need a few weeks or, in some cases, months to finish planning for the proposed operations.

“Those actions were cooked,” said a former official. “They had been vetted and agreed to in concept.”

Obama left behind a road map. Trump would have to decide whether to implement it. 

In the end of days, Team Obama tried to warn NATO of the fake news network the Russians had perfected:

Before Trump took office, a U.S. government delegation flew to NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief allies on what American intelligence agencies had learned about Russian tactics during the presidential election.

U.S. officials are normally reluctant to share sensitive intelligence with the alliance’s main decision-making body. But an exception was made in this case to help “fireproof” all 28?allies in case Russia targeted them next, a senior U.S. official said.

The Obama administration had gone through an agonizing learning curve. The Russians, beginning in 2014, had hacked the State Department and the White House before targeting the Democratic National Committee and other political institutions. By the time U.S. officials came to grips with the threat, it was too late to act. Now they wanted to make sure NATO allies didn’t repeat their mistakes.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, gaveled the closed-door session to order, and the Americans ran through their 30-minute presentation. The Europeans had for years been journeying to Washington to warn senior U.S. officials about Russian meddling in their elections. The Americans had listened politely but didn’t seem particularly alarmed by the threat, reflecting a widely held belief inside the U.S. government that its democratic institutions and society weren’t nearly as vulnerable as those in Europe.

For the first time since the days after 9/11, the American officials in Brussels sounded overwhelmed and humbled, said a European ambassador in the room.

When the briefers finished, the allies made clear to the Americans that little in the presentation surprised them.

“This is what we’ve been telling you for some time,” the Europeans said, according to Lute, the NATO ambassador. “This is what we live with. Welcome to our lives.”

So it was left to Trump to decide what action to take against his new best buddy Vlad.  Bwaa-haaa-haa! Let’s keep going, just for giggles:

After Trump took office, Russia’s army of trolls began to shift their focus within the United States, according to U.S. intelligence reports. Instead of spreading messages to bolster Trump, they returned to their long-held objective of sowing discord in U.S. society and undermining American global influence. Trump’s presidency and policies became a Russian disinformation target.

Articles from Donovan and other Kremlin-backed personas slammed the Trump administration for, among other things, supporting “terrorists” and authorizing military strikes that killed children in Syria.

“They are all about disruption,” said a former official briefed on the intelligence. “They want a distracted United States that can’t counter Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.

The dilemma facing the Trump White House was an old one: how to respond.

In the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Brett Holmgren, a top intelligence official in the Obama White House, briefed Ezra Cohen-Watnick, his Trump administration counterpart, on the actions Obama had taken. Holmgren and Cohen-Watnick declined to comment.

Once in the job, Cohen-Watnick sent out memos identifying counterintelligence threats, including Russia’s, as his top priority, officials said.

He convened regular meetings in the White House Situation Room at which he pressed counterintelligence officials in other government agencies, including the CIA, to finalize plans for Russia, including those left behind by the Obama team, according to officials in attendance.

By spring, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, senior White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill and Cohen-Watnick began advocating measures to counter Russian disinformation using covert influence and cyber-operations, according to officials.

But, just as in the Obama administration, the most far-reaching ideas ran into obstacles.

McMaster and Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, both laid claim to controlling the cyber-portfolio and would sometimes issue conflicting instructions that left policymakers and intelligence officials confused about whose direction to follow.

Obama’s 11th-hour actions had cleared the way for spy agencies to conduct cyber-operations to counter the Russian threat. But the CIA still had to finalize the plans, and the Trump White House wanted to review them.

Bossert was more cautious than McMaster about using cyber-tools offensively. His message to the National Security Council staff, a senior White House official said, was: “We have to do our homework. Everybody needs to slow down.” Directing the CIA to conduct covert influence operations was a similarly fraught process. Before the agency could proceed, intelligence officials informed the White House that it would need new authorizations from the president.

To Trump officials, the CIA appeared to be more interested in other priorities, such as proposals to target WikiLeaks. The National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment on the covert options.

The policy debates were further complicated by the difficulty of even raising Russian meddling with a president who viewed the subject as an attack on his legitimacy.

In an effort to bring Trump around, officials presented him with evidence of Putin’s duplicity and continued interference in U.S. politics. But the president’s recent public statements suggest that he continues to believe that he is making progress in building a good relationship with the Russian leader.

This month, Trump noted that Putin, in his end-of-year news conference, had praised Trump’s stewardship of the U.S. economy.

“He said very nice things,” Trump told reporters.

Putin later called Trump to praise the CIA for providing Russia with intelligence about a suspected terrorist plot in St. Petersburg.

“That’s a great thing,” Trump said after the second call with the Russian leader, “and the way it’s supposed to work.”

Even White House officials who take the Russia threat seriously fret that aggressive covert action will just provoke Putin to increase his assault on a vulnerable United States.

“One of the things I’ve learned over many, many years of looking at Russia and Putin is that he’s Mr. Preemption. If he thinks that somebody else is capable of doing something to him, he gets out ahead of it,” said a senior administration official. “We have to be extraordinarily careful.”

So, now that the Putin propaganda machine has been exposed, things are different now, right?  No more fake news from Russian agents? Not:

The Kremlin has given little indication that it intends to back off its disinformation campaign inside the United States. More than a year after the FBI first identified Alice Donovan as a probable Russian troll, she’s still pitching stories to U.S. publications.

In the spring, Donovan’s name appeared on articles criticizing Trump’s conduct of the war in Syria and defending Russian-backed leader Bashar al-Assad. “U.S.-led coalition airstrike on Assad’s troops not accidental,” the headline of a May?20 piece on CounterPunch read. Her last piece for CounterPunch, headlined “Civil War in Venezuela,” was published Oct.?16.

Other pieces under her byline have been published in recent months at Veterans Today, where Gordon Duff, the site’s editor, said he knew nothing about Donovan.

“I don’t edit what people do,” Duff said. “If it’s original, I’ll publish it. I don’t decide what’s real and not real.”

At We Are Change, which has also recently published Donovan’s work, Luke Rudkowski, one of the site’s founders, wondered why the FBI didn’t contact his publication with its suspicions.

“I wish we could get information from the FBI so we could understand what’s really happening,” he said. “I wish they had been more transparent.”

The FBI, in keeping with its standard practice in counterintelligence investigations, has kept a close hold on information about Donovan and other suspected Russian personas peddling messages inside the United States.

The bureau does not have the authority to shut down the accounts of suspected trolls housed on U.S. social media companies’ platforms.

“We’re not the thought police,” said one former senior law enforcement official.

The Russians are taking advantage of “seams between our policies, our laws and our bureaucracy,” said Austin Branch, a former Defense Department official who specialized in information operations.

Meanwhile, the Russians still have their sticky fake-news-fingers all over US social media, as former CIA deputy director and acting director Michael Morell wrote in his WAPO Op-ed on Christmas:   

The United States has failed to establish deterrence in the aftermath of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. We know we failed because Russia continues to aggressively employ the most significant aspect of its 2016 tool kit: the use of social media as a platform to disseminate propaganda designed to weaken our nation. 

Russia’s information operations tactics since the election are more numerous than can be listed here. But to get a sense of the breadth of Russian activity, consider the messaging spread by Kremlin-oriented accounts on Twitter, which cybersecurity and disinformation experts have tracked as part of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.

In a single week this month, Moscow used these accounts to discredit the FBI after it was revealed that an agent had been demoted for sending anti-Donald Trump texts; to attack ABC News for an erroneous report involving President Trump and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser; to critique the Obama administration for allegedly “green lighting” the communication between Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak; and to warn about violence by immigrants after a jury acquitted an undocumented Mexican accused of murdering a San Francisco woman.

This continues a pattern of similar activity over the past year. Russian operatives have frequently targeted Republican politicians who have been critical of Trump, including Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.). In September, they also attacked Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) after his decisive “no” vote against the Republican health-care bill.

And in mid-November, after Keurig pulled its advertising from Sean Hannity’s Fox News show for comments the host made defending Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, the Russians used their social media accounts to urge a boycott of the company. For two days, #boycottkeurig was the most used hashtag among Kremlin-influenced Twitter accounts. This was a Russian attack on a U.S. company and on our economy.

More troublingly, other countries are beginning to follow Russia’s lead on social media, according to research provided by the Alliance for Securing Democracy. The Chinese are doing so in Taiwan, where 75 percent of the population consumes media from a Japanese instant messaging app called LINE — a hotbed for fake news, much of it from China. Some of the messages pushed by Beijing — including one incorrectly saying that the Taiwan government was planning to regulate Buddhist and Taoist temples — have resulted in large protests in Taipei. And Turkey is starting to use social media to try to influence European policy debates, specifically by targeting the large Turkish diaspora in Europe.

While those information operations have not yet reached the United States, they most certainly will. Russia’s use of social media as a political weapon will continue, and more countries will follow suit — until deterrence is established.

The sanctions that the Obama administration and Congress put in place in the aftermath of the 2016 election are steps in the right direction, but they were not significant enough to check Russian President Vladimir Putin. True deterrence requires policies that prevent adversaries from achieving their objectives while imposing significant costs on their regimes. So far, we have done neither.

This article has 5 comments

  1. John Frost

    Along with all the Right Wing Fascist in this country, these trolls are dividing this country. I guess it’s easy in this country to sow discord. I may be in a bubble, but my life philosophy is to think like Mike Malloy concerning a general outlook on life. The Enlightment, science, reason and a Humanist outlook.

  2. Joni Ellsworth

    Thanks Kathy. Reading this has broadened my understanding of the extent of how we were, and are, continuously being played and how the GOP  and it’s supporters are willingly or unwillingly, playing along with Putin in order to disrupt our so-called democracy. Strange stuff, that this is happening, and indeed very scary. It’s clear why Putin is doing this. But why does the GOP want to do this and hence weaken us? It’s like a Chinese (no pun intended) puzzle wrapped inside an enigma and buried somewhere inside a set of Russian nesting dolls out of thousands of sets. Okay please excuse my getting carried away with the metaphor. And by the way, Happy New Year of more fun and frivolity! No hard feelings about my previous comments about fruitcakes, cookies and Mike’s book. I’m willing to say that your post here about makes up for all of it. Really, it does.

  3. Joni Ellsworth

    Meant to say “wittingly or unwittingly” as regards what the GOP is doing. Perhaps they think that anything that throws shade on Obama, Clinton, or the Democrats and that their base of rubes will believe, benefits them, but I think in the end it’s going to backfire on them. However, they won once with 30 percents of the electorate because too many Democrats stayed home, were denied the vote, or voted third party. The only way we can win is to prevent all three of those issues from happening again. As Chris Hedges says, “America is in a state of terminal decline” but we can at least go down fighting and maybe get a few wins along the way.

  4. DennyNNWofLA

    On Friday’s show, Mike spoke to the ‘boxing in’ of the creative part of his mind briefly with Prozac. We live in boxes, both metaphoric and real. Pharmaceuticals can be a box. Work another. Family, certainly. And our houses are boxes containing smaller boxes that contain idiot boxes. We go to work in small motorized boxes to the box containing our work space- another box within that box.

    What I appreciated was the fact that Mike spoke to the value of ‘all the crazy bullshit’ going on in his (creative) mind, as opposed to the regimented processes we must undergo daily. This is why I like to jump my box and retire to my back yard for a few hours each night following his show. Everything he has spoken about plus my own thoughts carried all day need to be let out, looked at and or let go. Can’t do it in my box- gotta be outside looking out the big window, where I can see history and truth in the sky and there’s lots of room for those thoughts to travel. The importance of spending time with our own thoughts cannot be understated nor overestimated.

    My wish is that more people would take that time. Anyway, try staying box-free in this next segment that restarted on the 21st. of what we call December.

    Resist
    Replace

  5. Doctor Who

    The new McCarthyism is in full effect. Sad to see that certain liberals have bought into the propaganda. This is all about the neoliberal establishment taking the focus off of the real problems we have in this Country and within specifically the Democratic party.

    There is no doubt that Trump has business dealings with Russia and Putin is NOT a good guy but millions of Obama voters who refused to vote for Clinton were NOT influenced by Russia. That is the fault of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment. And there is still not a shred of evidence of Russia hacking into the DNC. There is actually more evidence of a leak that happened in the United States. Perhaps someone within the DNC who was extremely angry at the rigging taking place?

    Concerning the intelligence community, the mainstream media, and the establishment politicians(on both sides, Warner and Burr), I really wish people would question more, look at past history, and understand that these folks are not working in your favor. This is a ruse to get another cold war going. This is a way to squash the momentum that progressives and the political revolution have going into 2018. And sadly, Mike Malloy is complicit in it. I don’t think it is intentional but I would expect someone like Mike who is rather perceptive to actually know better. To be able to have a good BS detector to see through this insanity.

    If you guys want the real beef on this new McCarthyism, please listen to Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, and Glenn Greenwald.

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