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GOP-Controlled Statehouses Test Legal Limits of Abortion

Republicans who control a majority of the nation’s statehouses are considering a wide range of abortion legislation that could test the government’s legal ability to restrict a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

The Mississippi House passed a bill Friday that would make the state the only one to ban all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In Missouri, lawmakers heard testimony earlier in the week on a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.

The Ohio House is expected to consider bills, already passed in the Senate, that would prohibit the most common type of procedure used to end pregnancies after 13 weeks and require that fetal remains be buried or cremated.

​Crucial question

Abortion is a perennial hot button issue in statehouses across the country. Republican-controlled states have passed hundreds of bills since 2011 restricting access to the procedure while Democratic-led states have taken steps in the other direction.

The early weeks of this year’s state legislative sessions have seen a flurry of activity around the issue. It comes as activists on both sides say they expect the U.S. Supreme Court to soon consider a question that remains unclear: How far can states go in restricting abortion in the interest of preserving and promoting fetal life?

The state bills debated since the start of the year “are all tests designed to see how far government power to legislate on behalf of a fetus can reach,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, who has been tracking legislation as the senior legal analyst for Rewire, a website that promotes views supporting abortion rights.

She said the outcome will determine whether states can legally ban abortion after a specific time period and outlaw specific medical procedures. Advocates for abortion rights say those strategies undermine the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that women have the right to terminate pregnancies until a fetus is viable.

​Women speak out

In Utah, critics have warned that a pending bill to prevent doctors from performing abortions on the basis of a Down syndrome diagnosis is unconstitutional. But its co-sponsor, Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble, said he is willing to defend the bill in court because its goal is to protect unborn children.

“There are times if the Supreme Court got it wrong, it is appropriate to push back,” said Bramble, an accountant from Provo.

The anti-abortion bills have drawn opposition from women who say they have made the excruciating choice to terminate a pregnancy, often after discovering serious fetal abnormalities.

“A 20-week abortion ban sounds OK, but if that gets passed, what’s next — 18 weeks, 15 weeks? At what point does it make abortion truly illegal?” said Robin Utz of St. Louis, 38, who submitted testimony this week against the Missouri bill. “It’s terrifying and it’s willfully ignorant.”

Utz recounted terminating her pregnancy in its 21st week in November 2016, after learning her daughter would be born with a fatal kidney disease if she survived birth. She said doctors told her that dilation and evacuation, the most common abortion procedure in the second trimester, was the safest way to terminate the pregnancy.

Court challenges underway

Undeterred by such stories, the National Right to Life Committee and its allies have been pushing for state laws that ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and outlaw dilation and evacuation. Supporters of both measures argue that fetuses are capable of feeling pain after 20 weeks and call the procedure “dismemberment abortion.”

Several court challenges to both types of laws are underway, with federal appeals courts considering the “dismemberment abortion” bans approved last year in Texas and Arkansas. The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the first-in-the-nation ban passed in that state three years ago.

Ingrid Duran, director of state legislation at the National Right to Life Committee, said the model state laws drafted by her group are aimed at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote who wrote the court’s 2007 opinion upholding a federal ban on a procedure critics call partial-birth abortion.

She said the court could use similar reasoning to prohibit dilation and evacuation and noted it has never considered whether states have an interest in protecting fetuses from pain.

“We did draft these laws with the bigger picture in mind,” Duran said.

Texas ruling shifts focus

The shifted focus comes after the court dealt the anti-abortion movement a blow in 2016 by ruling that strict Texas regulations on abortion clinics and doctors were an undue burden on abortion access and unconstitutional.

Anti-abortion groups hope President Donald Trump will be able to nominate one or more justices to the Supreme Court following last year’s confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, potentially making the court more conservative on the issue for decades to come.

In the meantime, some of them are cautioning their allies not to go too far.

Duran said the proposed 15-week ban in Mississippi, which now goes to the state Senate, caught her by surprise. She noted that prior state laws banning abortion after 12 weeks or once a heartbeat was detected have been found unconstitutional.

In South Carolina this past week, state senators tabled a bill that would have banned most abortions to give lawmakers more time to study the consequences. Also last week, a legislative committee in Tennessee amended a bill to remove language that would have outlawed abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which is usually around six weeks. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss, said he would be back.

“I will not stop fighting for the lives of babies until abortion is abolished in this state,” he said.

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Climate Change Skeptic Out as Trump Nominee for Environmental Job

The White House late Saturday confirmed plans to withdraw the nomination of a climate change skeptic with ties to the fossil fuel industry to serve as President Donald Trump’s top environmental adviser.

 

Kathleen Hartnett White was announced last October as Trump’s choice to chair the Council on Environmental Quality. She had served under former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now Trump’s energy secretary, for six years on a commission overseeing the state environmental agency.

 

But White’s nomination languished in the Senate, and was among a batch of nominations the Senate sent back to the White House at the end of 2017 when Congress closed up for the year. Trump resubmitted White’s nomination in January.

 

Pollution defended

White, who is not a scientist, has compared the work of mainstream climate scientists to “the dogmatic claims of ideologues and clerics.” In a contentious Senate hearing last November, she defended past statements that particulate pollution released by burning fuels is not harmful unless one were to suck on a car’s tailpipe.

Critics of White’s nomination to head the council pointed to her praise of fossil fuels as having improved living conditions around the world and helping to end slavery. She has called carbon dioxide not a pollutant but “a necessary nutrient for plant life.” 

 

During Perry’s tenure as governor of Texas, White often was critical of what she called the Obama administration’s “imperial EPA,” the Environmental Protection Agency, and she opposed stricter limits on air and water pollution.

White was a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that received funding from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Chevron and other fossil-fuels companies. White could not immediately be reached late Saturday for comment.

Nomination withdrawn

The Washington Post first reported late Saturday on plans by the White House to pull White’s nomination, citing two administration officials who had been briefed on the matter but spoke on condition of anonymity because the White House has not formally announced its decision.

 

A White House official later confirmed the Post report. The official was not authorized to discuss personnel decisions by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

 

Trump himself has called climate change a hoax and has laid the groundwork for withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accords. 

Other top Trump administration officials who question the scientific consensus that carbon released in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is the primary driver of global warming include Perry, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

 

U.S. Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said it was “abundantly clear very early on” that heading the Council on Environmental Quality wasn’t the right job for White. Carper called withdrawing White’s nomination “the right thing to do” and urged the Trump administration to nominate a “thoughtful environmental and public health champion to lead this critical office in the federal government.”

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Democrat Calls Nunes Memo ‘Flawed’; Trump Says It ‘Vindicates’ Him

A controversial memo alleging FBI investigators abused their powers in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is “embarrassingly flawed,” the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee said Saturday.

The memo released by the House Intelligence Committee “is a disgrace,” Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler said in a response to the document that has obsessed the U.S. political world this week. “House Republicans should be ashamed.”

Nadler’s six-page memo, addressed to his Democratic colleagues and obtained by television news networks, said the document — known as “the Nunes memo,” produced by House Republican Devin Nunes, chairman of the Intelligence Committee — “is deliberately misleading and deeply wrong on the law.”

The memo, released to the public Friday, alleges that the FBI overstepped its authority in obtaining a surveillance warrant for an aide to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The Nunes memo says the FBI relied heavily on a dossier of information assembled by Christopher Steele, a Russia expert and former British spy, for the campaign of Trump rival Hillary Clinton, via the law firm Perkins Cole and the research firm Fusion GPS.

The release of the memo intensified the battle between Trump and his Republican allies in Congress on one side and Democrats and top FBI officials on the other about whether the probe into Russian interference in the presidential election was affected by political bias on the part of investigators.

In his rebuttal, Nadler said the Republicans failed to show that the FBI relied substantially or solely on the dossier in question. Further, he said, “the Nunes memo does not provide a single shred of evidence that any aspect of the Steele dossier is false or inaccurate in any way.”

New Trump tweets

Joining the furor Saturday evening, President Trump, who is spending the weekend at his Florida golf resort, tweeted quotes of an editorial that appeared a day earlier in the Wall Street Journal. It said, in part, “The four page memo released Friday reports the disturbing fact [misquote in tweet; WSJ said “reports disturbing facts”] about how the FBI and FISA [in WSJ, “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” was spelled out] appear to have been used to influence the 2016 election and its aftermath.”

Trump did not quote a later paragraph in the editorial, in which the Wall Street Journal called for the release of the Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo.

“Democrats are howling that the memo, produced by Republican staff, is misleading and leaves out essential details,” the Journal said. “By all means let’s see that, too. President Trump should declassify it promptly.” The editorial also called for release of a referral for criminal investigation of the dossier’s author.

Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that the disputed Republican memo “totally vindicates” him, despite a contrary view by most Democrats.

“This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” the president tweeted Saturday morning. “But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their [sic] was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted back at the president, saying, “Quite the opposite, Mr. President. The most important fact disclosed in this otherwise shoddy memo was that FBI investigation began July 2016 with your advisor, Papadopoulos, who was secretly discussing stolen Clinton emails with the Russians.”

A significant part of the document focuses on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants that permitted FBI surveillance of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, a businessman with interests in Russia.

There had been concerns about Page’s alleged contacts with Russian intelligence agents.

The memo asserts that the dossier was an “essential part” of the FISA application on Page.

​FBI, DOJ response

After the memo’s release, the FBI on Friday re-issued its statement from earlier this week, saying the agency “takes seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals.”

The FBI noted it was given “limited opportunity” to review the document before lawmakers voted to release it.

“As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the agency said.

Rep. Nunes issued a statement Friday expressing hope that the actions of Intelligence Committee Republicans would “shine a light” on what he called “this alarming series of events.”

“The committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes,” Nunes said. “Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies exist to defend the American people, not to be exploited to target one group on behalf of another.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in on the memo’s release Friday, saying, he has “great confidence in the men and women of this Department (of Justice). But no department is perfect.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray told agency employees Friday that he stood with them after the release of the memo.

“I stand by our shared determination to do our work independently and by the book,” Wray said in a statement to 35,000 FBI staff members.

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Trump and Republicans Hail Release of Classified Memo on Russia Probe

Congressional Republicans released a classified memo related to the Russia investigation Friday after President Donald Trump decided that the document should be available to the general public. The memo from Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee alleges U.S. law enforcement officials including the FBI abused their authority in seeking to put a Trump campaign associate under surveillance for possible ties to Russia. The release of the memo has set off yet another political firestorm over the Russia probe in Washington, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone.

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What Is in the Nunes Memo?

A controversial document prepared by Republican members of Congress accuses U.S. law enforcement officials of abusing their surveillance authorities during the Russia investigation.

The 3½-page secret memo, written by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, was released Friday after President Donald Trump authorized its declassification.

What the memo alleges

The memo’s key allegation is that the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI improperly obtained a series of electronic surveillance warrants on former Trump associate Carter Page as part of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Page served as a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign and came under U.S. intelligence suspicion after traveling to Moscow and meeting with Russian officials.  

FBI surveillance of foreign spies and other foreign targets in the United States is overseen by a secret court known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). To obtain a warrant from the court, the FBI must furnish evidence that the target is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign government. 

In Carter’s case, the memo alleges, the FBI substantially relied on information from a research dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer for the election campaign of Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. The bureau used the information in its initial warrant application in October 2016 after Page had left the campaign as well as three subsequent renewal applications.

The author of the dossier, Christopher Steele, was a longtime FBI source who was paid by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, via the law firm Perkins Cole and the research firm Fusion GPS, to “obtain derogatory information on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia,” according to the memo.

Steele is also accused of harboring an anti-Trump bias during the campaign, telling a senior Justice Department official two months before the 2016 election that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” Trump has called the dossier’s allegations about his personal and financial ties to Russia a “Crooked Hillary Pile of Garbage.” 

But while the dossier formed an “essential part” of the Page surveillance applications, the memo says, FBI and DOJ officials failed to disclose that the underlying information had been funded by the Democrats “even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior DOJ and FBI officials.”  

The government “had at least four independent opportunities before the FISC to accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts,” the Republicans wrote in the memo. “However, our findings indicate that … material and relevant information was omitted.” 

To support their claim that the dossier was central to obtaining the warrants, the Republicans cited December 2017 testimony by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe that “without the dossier information,” no surveillance warrant would have been sought.  

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee who unsuccessfully tried to block the memo’s release blasted the document for “serious mischaracterizations.” 

In a statement, Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel, said the FBI “would have been derelict in its responsibility to protect the country had it not sought a FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] warrant.” 

What the memo doesn’t say 

While the memo says the application relied on unsubstantiated information from the Steele dossier, it doesn’t say what other pieces of evidence the FBI invoked to obtain the warrants. A FISA warrant application typically contains multiple sources of classified information to establish probable cause that the target of a proposed surveillance works for a foreign government. 

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said a key question that is left unanswered in the memo is whether other information used in the application was enough to warrant its approval.

“There is a lot of questions raised by the information that I’d like to get answers to,” Gonzales told VOA. 

Ahead of the memo’s public release, Trump tweeted that the “top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people!”

But the memo does not directly accuse the top brass at the FBI and Justice Department of any wrongdoing, though it does say that senior officials, including former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, all signed off on the Page warrant applications. 

Gonzales said that top officials who sign FISA warrant applications don’t always get to read every fact included in them.

“You’re not necessarily going to know what’s not included in the application and nonetheless you go ahead and sign the FISA application,” he said.

Gonzales said criticism of the department’s top brass can trickle down to its rank and file.

“Whatever one might say about being for the rank and file at the department, the line prosecutors and line investigators, anytime you attack the leadership or the work of the department, it does hurt the morale of the rank and file,” he said.

“I’m worried that the public’s confidence in the integrity of investigations and prosecutions by the Department of Justice has been eroded,” Gonzales said. “I think that’s a terrible place to be, quite frankly.”

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FBI Director Tells Employees He Stands With Them After Memo Release

FBI Director Christopher Wray told agency employees Friday that he stood with them after the release of a memo outlining allegations by Republican lawmakers that FBI investigators abused their powers in their probe of Russian interference in the presidential election.

“I stand by our shared determination to do our work independently and by the book,” Wray said in a statement to 35,000 FBI staff.

“You’ve all been through a lot in the past nine months and I know it’s often been unsettling, to say the least. And the past few days haven’t done much to calm those waters,” he said. “Talk is cheap; the work you do is what will endure.”

Wray’s letter made no direct reference to the memo released Friday. He also gave no indication that he planned to leave the agency.

President Donald Trump lashed out at the FBI and Justice Department on Friday after the memo was made public.

He tweeted: “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people.”

When asked by a reporter whether releasing the memo made it more likely Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be fired, Trump replied, “You figure that one out.”

Rosenstein supervises the Russia probe and named special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the investigation.

White House officials said later that the administration expected Rosenstein to remain in his job.

“No changes are going to be made at the Department of Justice. We fully expect Rod Rosenstein to continue on as the deputy attorney general,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told CNN.

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U.S. House Sets Tuesday Vote on Bill to Avoid  Government Shutdown

 The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Tuesday on legislation to keep federal agencies operating beyond Feb. 8, when existing funds expire, a senior House Republican aide said on Friday.

The aide did not provide details, however, on the duration of this latest-in-a-series of temporary funding measures.

Congressional negotiators are fighting over defense and non-defense spending levels for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, as well as other unrelated matters.

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Trump Nominee for Ambassador to Singapore Withdraws 

President Donald Trump says K.T. McFarland has withdrawn from consideration to be ambassador to Singapore. 

Trump issued a statement Friday. He said McFarland served his administration “with distinction” and said Democrats “chose to play politics rather than move forward with a qualified nominee for a critically important post.”  

McFarland is a former deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration and former Fox News analyst. She was nominated in May.

After the Republican-majority Senate did not act on the nomination by the end of last year, McFarland was re-nominated in January.

McFarland’s nomination was in doubt amid questions about her communications with ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn. 

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North Korean Escapees Tell Trump About Their Ordeals

After phone calls with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke Friday in the Oval Office with a group of North Koreans who had escaped their repressive country.

“Their story is amazing,” Trump said before asking the eight Koreans to speak about their ordeals.  The president listened intently as they spoke for 20 minutes.

“We actually have two other people outside and they are literally afraid of execution — they didn’t want to be with cameras,” the president told reporters.

Those defectors who decided to appear on camera thanked Trump for highlighting North Korean human rights abuses. Trump addressed the subject during his speech last November in the South Korean National Assembly and in his State of the Union address last week.

Several appealed to Trump to do more.

Those who escape North Korea to China “would rather die and kill themselves than be repatriated to North Korea,” said Lee Hyeon-soo, adding many carry poison with them in case they are caught.

“Please help us to stop the repatriations from China to North Korea,” she implored Trump.

Lee added that “escaping North Korea is not like leaving another country, it’s more like leaving another universe. I’ll never truly be free of its gravity no matter how far my journey.”

She told Trump that she fled an arranged marriage and a brothel in China.

Lee, now a student in South Korea, has written a memoir about her experience, The Girl with Seven Names.

Kim Kwang-jin, who was a banking agent in Singapore for the North Korean government and defected in 2003, told Trump his attention to the human rights issue “will be an inspiration” to many in his native country.

Ji Seong-ho, a double amputee who attended Trump’s State of the Union address, where he stood to wave his old crutches when he received an ovation, told Trump: “I’ve been crying a lot these past few days since the speech, as I was so moved by the whole experience.”

Ji also thanked the president “for paying attention and trying to help us.”

Peter Jung, who escaped to China in 2000, told Trump he is now a broadcaster for the U.S.-government-supported Radio Free Asia, which — as does VOA — broadcasts to North Korea in the Korean language.

“I was very honored to become a United States citizen” last year, he told Trump.

U.S. efforts

The president, during the Oval Office meeting, refrained from making provocative comments about North Korea or its leader.

In the past, he has threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the country — which is building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — and has belittled North Korea’s leader as “Little Rocket Man.”

During the meeting, Trump said, “We’re doing a lot” regarding North Korea. “We have many administrations that should have acted on this a long time ago.”

The president indicated his patience remains limited regarding North Korea’s activities.

“We have no road left,” Trump said.

“It’s a very tricky situation,” the president added. “We’re going to find out how it goes, but we think the Olympics will go very nicely and, after that, who knows?”

South Korea, Japan efforts

Vice President Mike Pence will lead the official U.S. government delegation to the opening of the Winter Games next week in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Athletes from the North and South are to march together under a common flag and will put a unified women’s hockey team on the ice.

A state of war has technically persisted on the Korean Peninsula since 1953, when the armies of China and North Korea signed an armistice with the United States and U.N. Command, which had defended the South during a three-year war.

North Korea has been under a totalitarian government since then. According to U.N. inquiries, the country’s violations of human rights are widespread, grave and systematic, rising to the level of crimes against humanity.

In his phone call Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the U.S. president thanked him “for Japan’s efforts to maintain international pressure on North Korea. This includes recent efforts to clamp down on North Korea’s attempts to circumvent sanctions in the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula,” according to the White House. “Both leaders agreed on the need to intensify the international maximum pressure campaign to denuclearize North Korea.”

They also discussed expanding Japan’s missile defense capabilities, it said.

Trump, in a call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, “discussed the importance of improving the human rights situation in North Korea and underscored their commitment to work together on this issue,” according to a readout of the discussion issued by the White House.

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Media Shut Out of President’s Speech to Republicans

U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the Republican Party’s winter dinner in Washington Thursday, aiming barbs at Democrats and touting some of the legislative successes for the party.

It was the second time in the day that Trump addressed the Republicans. Earlier he spoke to the Republicans at their retreat in West Virginia, urging those present to back his immigration proposal and help elect more Republicans.

At the dinner, Trump criticized the Democrats for “stonewalling” the critical immigration reform bill. He said while he is pushing to reach a deal, “The Democrats are AWOL. They’re missing in action,” he said.

Trump said all Democrats do is resist, taking a jab at the “resist” movement opposing him.

The president also spoke of how well his State of the Union speech had gone earlier in the week. He said, “Even the haters back there [members of the press corps] gave us good reviews on that one [State of the Union address]. It’s hard for them to do it. They came up with some fake polls, you know that fake polls. But the fake polls were even good.”

But the president’s full remarks were unavailable as the reporters present were told to shut down their cameras and were escorted out. The live feed carried by CSPAN was also cut.

The president routinely criticizes the media as being biased against him and his administration.

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