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DoD Operational Update Briefing with Secretary Gates and General Pace from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington Va

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace
May 09, 2007
            SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I don't have any opening statement. The chairman has a brief one. And then we'll go right to questions. 
 
            GEN. PACE: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. 
 
            Two things. One is, this is Military Appreciation Month. And for all of us who have the privilege to wear the uniform of the United States of America, thank you to all of our fellow citizens. The outreach over the last several years to all of us in uniform, regardless of people's feelings about the conflict, has been incredible. And the notes and the e-mails and the letters and the care packages and all the concern is deeply appreciated by all of us in uniform. We thank you all for that. 
 
            Second, this Friday, as part of that month, is Military Spouse Appreciation Day. And for all of us who have spouses who support us, they truly are the incredible hidden strength of our armed forces. When we go overseas, they stay home and they worry about us, they pray for us, they keep our families together. And when we come home, they pretend like they had nothing to do with it and stand in the background when we get awards. They serve this nation as well as anybody who's ever worn the uniform, and all of us who have military spouses want to thank them publicly. 
 
            Thank you, sir.  
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker plan on giving you an assessment by September on where things stand with the surge in Iraq. Will you by that time have an alternative approach, sort of a Plan B, ready in case your assessment or the president's assessment is that it's not working? 
 
            And also, General Pace, you mentioned this morning that you have issued no orders to direct contingency planning for a withdrawal from Iraq. I'm wondering why not. Is that not a possible contingency that you face? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I would say that, first of all, I suspect that whatever the evaluation in September will not lead to a precipitous decision or actions, but would point us in a new direction or -- either because the surge is working or because the evaluation is that it's not. 
 
            I said a couple of months ago that I would be irresponsible if we weren't doing some thinking about alternatives. But I would say that I think it's honest to say that there's detailed planning or consideration of any kind of operational alternatives at this point. It's more of just a broader conceptual thinking. 
 
            Q     But will you by September? 
 
            SEC. GATES: That may -- that probably will depend on how I think things are going on the ground. 
 
            GEN. PACE: My main point this morning really has to do with the fact that the system we have in place has already deployed and redeployed over a million men and women, and it's capable of surging up and surging down. So when the senator asked me, did we have any orders out to bring everybody home, no, we don't have any orders out to do that because the system is in place to increase or decrease as needed. 
 
            Q     By orders that means a plan that would -- what you consider a contingency on how you would do it if you were asked to do it. 
 
            GEN. PACE: The question this morning was: Did we have a contingency plan in place to bring everybody home all at one time? And my answer to that was no, we do not; that what we have is a system that would accommodate that if we needed to. 
 
            SEC. GATES: I would elaborate on the general's answer to this extent, to give you sort of an appreciation of my comment about it wouldn't lead to precipitous actions. It will have taken us five full months to strengthen by five brigades just because of the nature of the logistics and getting the equipment on ships and things like that. So this is a mammoth undertaking, and the Department of Defense, like a dinosaur, has no fine motor skills.   
 
            We don't -- (chuckles) -- whether it's budgets or logistics, we don't do things with a huge amount of agility. 
 
            Yeah? 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, you told Senator Byrd that you didn't know if the congressional authorization passed in October 2002 for the war in Iraq still applies today. I'm wondering if in light of that -- actually you elaborated on that, but in light of that ambiguity, whether or not you would be in favor of Congress passing another authorization making it clear that it was authorizing the continuation of the war. 
 
            SEC. GATES: What I followed up by saying was that the president clearly feels that it authorizes the actions, that the action taken in 2002 authorizes the activities that we have under way. My answer was largely a product of the fact that I wasn't here in 2002. I don't know what the debate was about and the specifics of the debate. I don't know any of the legislative history of the resolution. And I'm sure not a constitutional lawyer. So that was what was behind my saying I didn't know the answer. 
 
            Q     But my question is, given that there is some ambiguity -- and I mean not just in your answer today, but others have raised the question, given that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, given that the authorization had a lot to do with weapons of mass destruction, given that there is disagreement on that, would you be in favor of a new authorization that would make it absolutely clear that this is a congressionally authorized 
 
            SEC. GATES: Oh, I don't think that there's any ambiguity in the president's position. 
 
            Q     Sir, today also in your testimony you said that it's your belief that al Qaeda has actually expanded its organization and capabilities. Could you tell us over what time period you mean?  Because there's been an awful lot of talk touting the fact that three- quarters of the known al Qaeda leadership has been captured or killed and that that organization was put into a disarray, at least after the Afghan war. So what's the time period that they've reestablished themselves and established new linkages in Africa? 
 
            SEC. GATES: My sense of it is that it's been within the last couple of years, and particularly within the last year or so, that we've seen more defined training capabilities in western Pakistan, along with Taliban safe havens there. 
 
            I've tried to break it out and have the intelligence folks break it out for me in three categories: places where we know that there are al Qaeda cells and al Qaeda planning going on, al Qaeda organization is in place;  countries where there are terrorist organizations that are not al Qaeda but affiliated with al Qaeda;  and then the third, those countries where there are terrorist cells that would like to become affiliated with al Qaeda but have not been admitted to membership yet, if you will. 
 
            So there's kind of three different levels of activity, and it covers most of the countries of the Middle East. It covers several countries in Europe and so on.  
 
            Q     I think the first category -- Americans watching might say, "If we know where they're planning and know where they're training, why aren't we going after them?" 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, we -- where we get actionable intelligence, we do try to go after them. We have the necessary legal authorities, and knowing that they're -- knowing that they are active is different than knowing where they are. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, last week a Pentagon mental health survey team came out with its report, and it said that those soldiers and Marines with repeated deployments in high-combat areas -- about 30 percent of them test positive for mental health problems. And it recommended more time off for those in high levels of combat. It said for every three months they're in combat, they should get one month off in theater. And the team said that recommendation was not accepted. Can you tell us why? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't know the specific reasons why it wasn't. I wasn't aware of that specific recommendation. I do know that in the report that was briefed to you all last week by the internal review group that Togo West and Jack Marsh chaired, co-chaired, that there was a fair amount of attention on the mental issues coming out of the war, both -- and brain injury as well.   
 
            One of their recommendations is a center for excellence for dealing with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and we're looking very carefully at that.   
 
            I was just at the Center for the Intrepid on Thursday afternoon, and that may be a good model for combining private and public research and rehabilitation and care.   
 
            I've been told that there aren't enough mental health caregivers in the military medical system, that it's hard to pay competitive salaries for those folks. I talked a little bit about this with some of the doctors at Brooke Army hospital, which I visited on Friday. And so I think we have to look at all of these things and see how we take care of these young people.   
 
            And as I said in the hearing, in response to a question from Senator Murray this morning, we also need to be more aggressive in getting the word to the troops that particularly some of these mental health problems are more common than we would like, that they are not a sign of weakness but rather something that is treatable and that we want to be very much involved in caring for them. So all I can tell you, I don't know the answer to three months on, one month off. But we are taking the mental health situation coming out of this conflict very seriously.   
 
            Q     But these are folks who are still in combat.   
 
            SEC. GATES: I understand. I understand what it is.   
 
            Q     So the question is, can they get more time off? Is that something you look into?   
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, one of the things that we've already done is, arrange that units that are deploying early or more frequently are going to get an administrative leave, administrative time off, commensurate with the time of their deployment, so that they will get extra time off. Now how that fits in with this recommendation, I'd have to wait and see.   
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, as you know, the Iraqi parliament is considering a two-month long summer break. And I wanted to ask, what effect do you think that break would have in showing political and security progress by September?   
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I was pretty blunt, when I was in Baghdad a couple of weeks ago, in saying to those with whom I was speaking that the purpose of this surge is to help buy the Iraqis time for reconciliation. And I was blunt enough to say that every day that we're buying them for reconciliation is being paid for with American blood, and that the idea of the legislature going out for -- the Council of Representatives going out for two months, in my personal opinion, was unacceptable while we were continuing to pay that price.   
 
            Q     And were they receptive to that 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, among others, the prime minister said, you know, the Council of Representatives is an independent branch of government; I can't tell them what to do.  
 
            But I came away with the very distinct feeling that the Presidential Council, the prime minister and others would be trying to persuade the Council of Representatives not to do that. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, a couple of weeks ago, when there was a debate about the White House looking for a war czar, you seemed to describe it as much ado about nothing. You said that if Stephen Hadley had the time, that's what he would do. Given that J.D. Crouch is leaving, is it now time to look for a war czar again? Or as the secretary of Defense, do you become the de facto war czar, and is that a good thing? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I don't want to be a czar of anything. (Chuckles.)   
 
            You know, it's clearly going to be tough to replace J.D. I think everybody in the government who works national security has very high regard for J.D. and the role he's played in the government. So replacing him will not be easy.   
 
            I think that -- I think still that there is a part -- a role to be played by somebody working for Steve who can coordinate the activities of the -- particularly of the different parts of our government, and sort of be somebody on the other end of the phone for Dave Petraeus or Ryan Crocker, when somebody's not showing up with a commitment to be -- when there's a commitment to be made and people aren't showing up, on behalf of the president and empowered by the president to work with other departments of the government to get those people deployed, or find somebody who can be deployed. And I think there's still a role for that.   
 
            J.D. has covered an enormous range of issues, far from limited to Iraq. So I think that -- so I think what we're looking for really is somebody who -- I sort of think of it as a 911-number for Petraeus and Crocker; somebody, when they're not getting the kind of responsiveness that they need out of other parts of the U.S. government, somebody operating out of the White House, empowered by the president, who can call up and say, "You were asked to provide this number of people with this kind of a specialty, and the president wants to know where they are." 
 
            Q     Normally when you have a job that's that close to the president, you don't have a shortage of candidates willing to sign up. So have you found some good candidates? Are you looking at someone right now or -- 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think first of all, for this kind of a -- you know, it's a problem, frankly, that I think the administration will face in general as we go forward. And it's a concern that I have here in the Department of Defense. There is roughly 20 months left in this administration. To ask somebody to come in, to ask them to go through a divestiture process in terms of their personal financial holdings, to go through the entire investigative process, and by the time they're finally on board, to spend 15 months doing the job, it's a challenge finding people who are willing to do something for that period of time. And independent of that, with the Department of the Defense, then when you add a confirmation process on top of all of that, it's a real challenge. And so I think finding somebody who is willing to do all of that for a finite -- for the kind of time that's available has been one of the challenges that's Steve has faced. 
 
            Yeah? 
 
            Q     A question for General Pace. Iran's involvement in Iraq. April, we've now confirmed 69 EFP attacks inside Iraq, the highest level ever; also that Iran is now supporting some Sunni extremist elements inside Iraq. What's the trend line here? Is it going the wrong way in terms of Iran's involvement in Iraq? What do you see going on? 
 
            GEN. PACE: The facts are what you stated. There were more explosively-formed projectiles this month than any month in the past. To the best of our knowledge, all of them are manufactured in Iran, so that's not a good trend. It still, though, is not possible to point directly to who inside of Iran is supplying those or who has knowledge of those. So we need to be careful about what we know are facts and what we suppose from those facts. 
 
            Q     What about Iran's support now for Sunni elements inside Iraq? Why would Iran be doing that? 
 
            GEN. PACE: Again, not knowing who in Iran may or may not be, you could suppose that whoever it is who is helping is doing so to create turmoil inside of Iraq to be able to make it so that Prime Minister Maliki and the Council of Representatives cannot function properly to allow either for the current al Qaeda or others to be able to have more power inside of Iraq or perhaps to have more political influence of the bodies. But again, I need to point out that, although we know where those are manufactured, we do not know exactly the organization that is delivering them. 
 
            Q     The MRAPs program, the Mine Resistant Armor Program (sic/Ambush Protected). You sent the memo last week to the service secretaries of the Navy and asking them to come back Friday with a plan, an approach, to accelerate procurement. This is the first program you've really weighed in on from what I can tell. What prompted the memo? And also, you mentioned in it your concern about a wide variance in the approach between the Army and the Marines in using the vehicle. Could you elaborate a little bit? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think the first thing that caught my attention, as is often the case, was a newspaper article that indicated that out of something like 300 incidents involving IEDs, where these MRAP vehicles were involved, no Marines had been killed. And that certainly got my attention. And the more we looked into it, it was clear that there was a lot of interest in this. There's clearly interest in it on the Hill. They've added money to the supplemental to buy more MRAPs. 
 
            My concern is that the rate of production is nowhere near what it needs to be to meet the demand on the part of either the Army or the Marine Corps, and there's several different categories of these things. And one of the questions I had -- the Marines had actually at one point ordered a lot more of these vehicles than the Army had, and that was the basis of my question about how they looked at it differently. 
 
            My understanding -- I haven't seen a piece of paper on it -- is that the Army has been recalibrating its interest and has substantially increased the number of these vehicles they think they can use. 
 
            Q     General Pace, you were around for the controversy about we don't have enough up-armored humvees. The Pentagon spent billions of dollars to get about 12,000, 13,000 in theater. Now you have to buy a new vehicle almost supplanting the humvee. What went wrong? Was that vehicle not effective in the long run? 
 
            GEN. PACE: Oh, I think what you have is a natural evolution of technology and very sharp people in business and industry looking at the problem and devising different ways to defeat that problem. And the up-armored humvee -- 
 
            Q     You said people -- sharp people in industry. 
 
            GEN. PACE: No, I mean sharp people in industry looking for ways to defeat that problem -- or to protect us from that problem. So the up-armored humvee and then the enhanced armor on the humvees -- same thing with protective body armor -- a certain way to defend yourself, then another manufacturer determines how to do it with -- thinner and lighter. 
 
            The same thing happens throughout the business world as people tackle problems. What this is the next evolution of vehicles that is responding to the underbelly attacks that sometimes take place. So it's a natural progression, I believe, of lighter, more effective, more resistant armor, both personal and vehicle. 
 
            SEC. GATES: I would that -- to your point -- it also is a reflection of the fact that we are dealing with a smart, agile enemy. And they are adjusting their tactics and their capabilities as we move along, and so, you know, we have the up-armored humvees, and they're the best we had and we got as many of them to the field as we could. Now we have something better, and we're going to get that to the field as best we can. But these are huge vehicles, first of all. These things are about the size of a bus, as far as I can tell. And -- is that about right? 
 
            GEN. PACE: Yes, sir. And there's no solution out there that's going to protect everybody from everything all the time. 
 
            What you try to do is, you try to provide the best protection you can that still allows a soldier, Marine to be able to go out and do the job they need to do. 
 
            So if you put everybody, each soldier, inside of his own private M-1 tank, he would have great protection, but there are still devices out there that can destroy that tank, and he would not be able to do his job, because his job is not to rumble around the city inside of a tank.   
 
            So you've got to find the right balance between force protection and the mission that needs to be done.   
 
            Q     For General Pace, please, one of the obvious benchmarks of progress in Iraq is the ability of the Iraqis to stand up their own security forces. Now, we get the raw total numbers of security forces, but can you tell us either the number or the percentage of Iraqi army battalions -- more than 100, I guess -- the number or percentage of those Iraqi army battalions that can operate today, totally independent of U.S. forces? 
 
            GEN. PACE: I will give you the numbers as of about yesterday. There are 10 battalions that are operating by themselves as we speak. There are 88 additional battalions that are in the lead, meaning that they're on operations with coalition forces, and they are leading the operation. There are 27 Iraqi battalions that are in coalition operations, and they are following. And there are 29 Iraqi battalions that are still forming. 
 
            SEC. GATES: Yeah? 
 
            Q     And when you say "independently," does that include planning, intel, logistics, the whole nine yards? 
 
            GEN. PACE: I am sure that they are still receiving some assistance from the embedded training teams, and certainly, just like a Marine battalion -- when I was a Marine battalion commander, when I needed help from an air force, I called in airstrikes -- so it's not that you're just out by yourself on your own. But the battalion commander and his staff are able to take their unit to the field, operate in their own area of operations, do their own planning, do their own logistics, do all the things they need to do, understanding that they may need medevac help, just like our battalions do; they may need artillery help; they may need close air support help from others. 
 
            Q     And are these 10 operating in less contentious areas, where -- outside of Baghdad or al Anbar? 
 
            GEN. PACE: We can get that. I don't know specifically. 
 
            SEC. GATES: Yeah? 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, there is a company in Germany under the 1st Armored Division that came back from Iraq in February. They're now scheduled to return in November. That's nine months, not 12.  There's also additionally several hundred individual Army soldiers that we've been able to identify so far that will be returning with less than 12 months dwell time.   
 
            My understanding was that the whole point of extending these people to 15 months was so that they could have this 12 months dwell time at home. Can you explain this? 
 
            SEC. GATES: No, I can't, and I'll be very interested to find out more about that.   
 
            There were two units that -- one active and one reserve that were exempted from the extension because they had already been extended 16 months. It sounds like these are different units than those. And -- I'm sorry.   
 
            Q     That is correct, sir.   
 
            SEC. GATES: Okay, and we just need to find out about that. Because we -- I made it clear that people would have 12 months at home.   
 
            Yeah.   
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, you were asked a lot of questions today about the shortage of equipment by National Guard units around the country, and you explained the plan for replenishing those inventories. But given the frustration expressed by the states and the potential for a problem if there was a really catastrophic event, is there any consideration of accelerating the acquisition of additional equipment for Guard units? And you also talked about funding to restore to about the 75, 76 percent level. Why not 100 percent, is it just a question of money? What more could or should be done there?   
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, first, as I indicated at the hearing, historically going back 10 years to well before 9/11, the average equipment on hand for these units as a national average was somewhere between 75 and 80 percent. In the last few years it's been around 70 percent. You know, this year it drops off to 56 percent.   
 
            What I told Senator Mikulski was that we're prepared to sit down and take a look at this and look at it on a state-by-state basis and see if there's more we should be doing and if there is a way to make sure that the capacity of the National Guard to respond to disasters at home is what it should be. Now the piece of this that did not come out in the hearing is that thanks to General Blum, there are cooperative arrangements in place so that, for example, in the case of Kansas, they could have drawn on up to 70,000 National Guardsmen in the surrounding states, in the neighboring states of Kansas, plus all of their equipment. So their capacity to deal not only with one disaster but two or three is there because of these cooperative arrangements that General Blum has worked with adjutants general to create, that allows them to bring additional equipment in and so on. This is what happened after Katrina with the National Guard and surrounding states. 
 
            The National Guard has paid -- the National Bureau has paid particular attention the capability of the National Guard in the eight states that are hurricane prone in terms of their equipment and whether they have the capacity to respond and are paying attention on a priority basis to ensure that they're able to do so. 
 
            But what I indicated to Senator Mikulski is we're perfectly willing to sit down and look at this and work with the states. We understand the concerns of the governors. They're legitimate concerns, and we want to make sure that the Guard is able to respond. 
 
            Do you want to add anything to that? 
 
            GEN. PACE: No, sir, I think that's right on. Thank you. 
 
            Q     Then the key points -- I mean, can -- I mean, is this acquisition of equipment being put on a faster track or can it be on a faster track, or is this basically as fast as you can go? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I -- that's the question I don't have the answer to. We have -- as I told the Senate committee, we have $22 billion for the Army National Guard alone between 2008 and 2013 for equipment. We have several billion dollars in the `08 budget. We have a total of something like $32 billion or $33 billion for all of the Guard and Reserve. 
 
            So if General Blum is up there saying our overall unmet need is $40 billion, we're talking about sums of money that are actually fairly close to that if you take the $32 billion or $36 billion, depending on the time frame that you have.  All I'm saying is I'm willing to sit down with people and see if there's some way that, if it's necessary, that we can accelerate some of that. 
 
            Q     This morning you talked about achieving a bipartisan agreement about troop levels in Iraq. I wonder if you could expand upon that a little bit more about what time, how soon does this sort of agreement need to be reached, and what needs to happen in Washington to try to reach an agreement given the -- 
 
            SEC. GATES: My formative experience in Washington was an unwritten bipartisan consensus through nine successive presidencies on how to deal with the Soviet Union through a policy of containment. There were huge disagreements over tactics, whether -- if you want to call the Vietnam War a tactic, but -- or the Korean War for that matter -- but how to deal with the Soviet Union, more emphasis on arms control, more emphasis on an arms build-up. The fundamental strategy -- on that fundamental strategy there was broad bipartisan agreement. There was never anything written down about it, and I don't think that there needs to -- well, I'm not talking about some kind of summit where everybody sits down and signs up and says this is the strategy for Iraq going forward, but I think rather a broad, bipartisan agreement that on two points: 
 
            First of all, that it's important to defend this country on the extremists' 10-yard line and not on our 10-yard line. That has big implications in terms of how our forces are deployed, the kind of forces we buy, the kinds of relationships we have internationally because it means we're over there trying to deal with the problem, not over here. 
 
            The other part of it is that in a country that's been through the problems that Iraq has had, the fact that there is probably -- assuming we have some kind of a long-term strategic agreement or security agreement with the Iraqi government that acknowledges their sovereignty and so on but still provides the assistance of some level of U.S. troops in Iraq for a protracted period of time, whether that's 25,000 troops or what that number is -- I have no idea. In terms of intelligence help and logistics, air support, who knows what it might be -- it would have to be worked out with the Iraqis. But in terms of providing a stabilizing presence, particularly given the behavior and attitudes of Iran on the eastern border, the Syrians on the northern and western borders and the overall instability in the region, my view is -- my personal view is this would be a stabilizing -- have a stabilizing effect, and I think it's something that we need to talk about. Obviously, it's a matter of where the Iraqi government has a big say as well. 
 
            Mr. Secretary. 
 
            SEC. GATES: Last question. Yeah. 
 
            Q     Were you surprised to read in The Washington Post this morning the headline specific: "Commanders in Iraq See the 'Surge' Going Into '08," that General Odierno is quoted is saying that he thought the surge would go into spring of next year, is there a difference of opinion between you, General Petraeus and General Odierno about how long the surge will last? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't think so. Let me take a crack at your -- at answering your question, then ask the general, and then we'll get out of here. 
 
            I think that it's tied in with the announcement of the deployment orders that were sent to 35,000 troops, and that what is -- what they are talking about is that we have the capacity, with these announcements, to sustain the surge into next spring, into next March or April. 
 
            One of the results of my decision for a 15-month tour deployed and 12 months at home, in addition to allowing us to sustain that presence for that period of time, is that it gives us the opportunity to notify troops and their families at the maximum possible time in advance of when they might have to deploy. 
 
            They may or may not have to, but they know but their next deployment will not be before, say, December, so they know they've got seven months to plan. It also gives their units time to train and do all the right things. 
 
            So I think that there's a little confusion in terms of what our capacity is and in terms of what will actually be needed. And my own view and, I think, the view of General Petraeus and General Pace and, I suspect, of General Odierno as well, is that the evaluation in September will give us -- will be an important moment in terms of deciding whether to take advantage of the capacity that we have. 
 
            GEN. PACE: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. We checked with General Odierno today, as you would expect we would, to find out, you know, what did the general mean to say, and he said basically what the secretary just said, which is his intent was to forecast that if needed to, the decisions that had been made would allow us to keep the urgent surge up until about April of next year, based on the decisions made today.   
 
            But the secretary and I were with General Odierno, General Petraeus, Admiral Fallon about three weeks ago in Baghdad. We sat down, we had a very long conversation. There's no doubt in my mind that we all understand exactly how this process is going to work. We're going to get to September, we're going to take a look at where we are, then we're going to make recommendations, the secretary and the president are going to make decisions and we'll carry it out from there. But this positions us to be able to either sustain or not, based on what the decisions are at the top. 
 
            Q     Just a quick follow-up. Is it possible that when you get -- you said you suspect to know by September, at least have an idea whether it's working or not. Is it possible that in September you could decide that you don't know if it's working yet and you need more time? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't know what will happen in December (sic). We'll wait -- or September.
 
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