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Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

April 18, 2022
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Afternoon everybody. I think you saw that this morning, The Secretary called his Romanian counterpart Minister Dîncu to continue coordinating our assistance to the Ukrainian people who are bravely resisting Russia -- Russians -- Russia's aggression. Both leaders shared a sense of urgency -- a shared sense of urgency given what's going on in the eastern part of the country. 

And both leaders, of course, commended allied efforts to provide humanitarian and security assistance to Ukraine. The Secretary also commended Romania for welcoming hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees and he was able to get an update from the Minister on the formation of the French lead NATO multinational battlegroup that's in Romania. I think we issued a readout of that call a little bit ago. 

This afternoon, I think as you all know, the Secretary is now meeting with the Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana here at the Pentagon just upstairs to discuss ways to continue to deepen our cooperation under the U.S. Philippine Alliance. Both ministers will reiterate their commitment to supporting this security stability and prosperity in the Indo Pacific and to ensuring the alliance remains capable and based on shared values and interests. 

They're also scheduled to of course discuss the importance of acting in unison to condemn Russian aggression and acting in solidarity with Ukraine. Finally, the Secretary will express his deepest condolences on behalf of the Department for the tragic loss of life in the wake -- in the Philippines in the wake of Tropical Storm, Megi. I think it's more than 100 Filipinos now who have lost their lives as a result of that tropical storm. 

And with that, we'll take your questions. Bob, I think you're on the phone.

Q: Yes, thank you, John. On Ukraine, wondering what signs you might be seeing of an imminent escalation of the Russian offensive in the Donbas based on recent airstrike activity or other indicators that you're monitoring?

MR. KIRBY: Can you repeat that?

Q: Yes. What signs you might be seeing of an imminent escalation and the Russian, of the Russian that's offensive in the Donbas based on recent airstrikes activity, or other things that you're monitoring?

MR. KIRBY: So, I would say well, just kind of reset what we've seen over the last couple of days. Hopefully this will get your question. I mean, we have seen the Russians continue to flow in enablers, capabilities that will help them fight in the Donbas going forward, that's artillery, rotary aviation, helicopter support, command and control enablers. And we do believe that they have reinforced the number of battalion tactical groups in the east and the south of Ukraine. 

Now, we can't say specifically where all these battalions are, these tactical groups are going. But we have seen over the last few days that they've added now more than 10, to what they already had there in that part of the country. Separate and distinct from that, Bob, we've continued to see the concentration of their airstrikes and artillery, in the Donbas and in the south. Particularly around an in Mariupol, that's where the preponderance of their strike activity has gone. 

And the fighting of Mariupol, as you guys have all seen continues, the Ukrainians are still resisting. The city has not fallen to the Russians. But they continue to pound it from the air and through long range fires. So, it's been just over the last several days, you can see -- you can continue to see the Russians are doing what we call shaping. 

They're trying to set the conditions for more aggressive, more overt, and larger ground maneuvers in the Donbas. But again, I would remind this is an area of the country that has seen fighting over the last eight years. This is a terrain that both sides understand and know. And the Ukrainians, it's not like they ever left the Donbas and only had been, you know, racing to get there in the last few days. 

They have been there throughout this invasion, and throughout the last eight years. And they continue to fight very, very strongly for places in the Donbas. And we have seen indications, in just the last few days that the Ukrainians not only have defended bravely, but they have been able to secure certain villages and towns in the Donbas. Travis.

Q: I have a question about Ukraine too. U.S. troops training Ukrainians on the howitzers and the radar systems, we've heard that that training could start this week. I'm just wondering if there are additional details like, you know, how many U.S. troops will be involved? Where this is going to happen? Some essential details like that, whereas is this going to be held closely by the Pentagon?

MR. KIRBY: I think we're going to obviously -- so let me back up. It is true that we believe we'll be able to begin a process of training the Ukrainian armed forces on the howitzers that we'll be shortly heading over. That training will occur outside of Ukraine. It'll be more of a train the trainer's kind of environment. So, it'll be a small number of Ukrainians that will be trained on the howitzers. And then they will be reintroduced back into their country to train their colleagues. I'm not going to get into the locations. 

It'll will be outside of Ukraine. I'm going to refrain right now from talking about who's going to be doing the training, and exactly on what timeline. I think as we get closer to things, we may be able to talk a little bit more about it. But there is a plan now that we are beginning to execute. And we think that that training can happen in the next several days. Important to remember Travis, that this is not as -- while this particular system is new to the Ukrainians. 

They don't use American howitzers in artillery. They understand how to use artillery, and it won't -- we don't believe will take very long or require much detailed training to get them up to speed on American howitzers. An artillery piece, so I've been told is not unlike other artillery pieces. The basic outlines of the system are the same. 

We'll just have to get them up to speed on the particulars of our howitzers. These are 155 howitzers. The Ukrainians typically use 152, it's different caliber. But it doesn't mean that it's going to be overly laborious to get them up to speed on this. And I think again, we'll be able to get this training done, at least the first round of it in the next several days.

Q: And if I could just follow up. Obviously, the battlefield is very fluid with Mariupol and what's happening in Donbas. But is it possible at this point in time to talk at all about how this training and as equipment like the howitzers and the radars could influence the battle? Or what capabilities would give Ukrainians (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: Artillery is a specific item that the Ukrainians asked for, because of the fighting that they expect is going to occur in the Donbas. Again, I want to remind there has been fighting there for eight years. There's fighting there today. But the terrain lends itself to the use of artillery. To long range fires, as we call it. And we know that the Russians also believe the same thing because we're seeing them move artillery units into the Donbas as well. 

And so, we want to give the Ukrainians every bit of advantage that we can. They specifically ask for artillery support. And we answered that with this recent drawdown package that was just authorized on the 13th. So that was Wednesday of last week, and it's 18 howitzers, 40,000 rounds of artillery, 155 artillery that will go with the howitzers. 

And look, we'll continue to talk with them, it'll be an iterative conversation. And there may be additional security assistance that comes on top of what we just announced. You didn't ask this, but I think it's important to also point out that authorization from the President was on the 13th. The execute order was issued on the 14th. 

And on the 15th, two days later, the first shipment started arriving in the theater of stuff from that 800 million drawdown package. Now, again, I'm not going to get into the inventory list, and exactly what was on that first shipment, but that is unprecedented speed. 48 hours after authorization from the President first plane was on its way. 

And there have been subsequent shipments since then, almost a half a dozen as you and I speak here today have already arrived in the region. Sylvie.

Q: Hi, John. I have two questions. First, the Russians announced that they have bombed weapons storage facility where some Western weapons were stored. Can you confirm that?

MR. KIRBY: I -- no, I know that they struck Lviv. They hit targets in Lviv, and I think they also struck in Kyiv over the last couple of days. We don't have a clear sense of battle damage assessment about what they were targeting and what they hit. 

At this time, we don't have any indication that Western aid was targeted and or hit or destroyed. But again, we're still working our way through the BDA as you will -- the Battle Damage Assessment. And I just don't have more for you than that.

Q: OK. And to follow up on Bob's question. You said last week that the Russians still had -- they were not ready to launch their new battle, that they had still logistic problems. Do you assess that they improved their logistic preparation now and that they could be able to launch?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, too soon to tell Sylvie. I mean, these are these appear to be chronic difficulties that the Russian military has had in terms of logistics and sustainment, command and control, unit cohesion, operational maneuver, integration of air to ground. All problems that they still suffer from. So, it remains to be seen whether they have quote, "fixed these problems," and are now ready to execute in a more efficient way in the Donbas. 

Our assessment is that they are still struggling with a lot of these problems. Also, our assessment is that part of the reason we're talking about shaping operations in the Donbas is because the Russians are trying to learn from their mistakes. So, in the last few days, we have seen them move in, as I said, command and control enablers, aviation support, largely helicopters moving in artillery units ahead of what would be massive ground movements by troops or larger ground movements by troops. 

So, it appears as if they are trying to learn from those mistakes. But again, it remains to be seen whether they've actually fixed their problems. We still assess that on many levels in many ways, they still haven't figured out logistics and sustainment. And they still have command and control problems, but again, remains to be seen. David.

Q: You say that the Russians are conducting shaping operations. The Secretary of the Ukrainian Security Council was on television this morning saying that the active phase of the offensive has begun.

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: Kharkiv down to Donetsk. Do you agree with that?

MR. KIRBY: I'm certainly in no or no position to dispute with the Ukrainians are seeing on the ground. David, they're there. I've also said and said repeatedly that there have been active operations going on in the Donbas since the beginning of this invasion, in fact, for the last eight years.

So, we absolutely have seen, and we've acknowledged that we've seen offensive and defensive operations by both the Russians and the Ukrainians in just the last several weeks. There's no question, and I just said a few minutes ago, we've seen the Ukrainians move against Russian positions in certain towns and villages. 

And we believe that they've been able to re-secure some of those towns and villages in the Donbas. So, we're not disputing that there's not combat going on in the Donbas. What we're saying is, we're seeing -- we still consider that what we're seeing to be a piece of shaping operations. 

That they are -- that the Russians are continuing to set the conditions for what they believe will be eventual success on the ground by using -- by putting in more forces, putting in more enablers, putting in more command-and-control capability for operations, yet they come.

Q: I'll try this in a slightly different way. Do you believe the Russian offensive in the East has begun?

MR. KIRBY: We believe that the Russians are shaping and setting the conditions for future offensive operations. We also see David, that there is active combat going on right now in the Donbas as there has been for the last several weeks. Yes.

Q: Hi John. There have been some reports that both Russians and Ukrainians have been using cluster munitions. Is that something you guys have seen? Can you confirm?

MR. KIRBY: We are not in a position to independently verify the use of cluster munitions. I mean, we've seen the video. Of course, the same video that I'm sure you've seen and looked at. But without being on the ground, it's difficult for us to say definitively and independently that we can confirm that. 

Certainly not refuting the images or what others are saying about it. OK. Janee, I'll come back to you in a second. Go ahead.

Q: Mike Breast from The Washington Examiner. Two questions first, has any U.S. aid not gotten to where it's supposed to go? And secondly, could we get an update on Russia's military capability?

MR. KIRBY: That's a -- that second one's a big one, Mike. So, on the first one, just to remind, what we're doing is helping coordinate the trans-shipment of not only U.S. security systems, but security system provided by many other nations more than 30 getting it into Ukrainian hands. Getting it into Ukraine, using ground methods, and that's as far as I'm going to go in terms of the details on that. 

And we're confident that that material continues to get into Ukraine. Once it gets into Ukrainian hands, it's up to the Ukrainian Armed Forces to decide where it goes. What unit gets it, when, where it's stored, if it's stored at all temporarily. That is up to the Ukrainians to decide, not the United States. We're not putting strings on this stuff and telling them that they have to move this by a certain date or get it to a certain unit. 

That -- we would not step on their toes in that regard. Our job, get it in the region, get it into Ukraine, and then the Ukrainians use it in the field. As for Russian military capability, that's a very big question. So, I'll do the best I can. I mean, we still assess that, in general, they have the vast majority of their assembled combat power available to them. 

That they, from what they assembled over the course of the fall, and in the early winter months or weeks. They still have a lot of that amass combat power available to them. They have suffered losses. They have suffered casualties. They have lost platforms and systems, whether it's aircraft or tanks or armored personnel carriers. You've seen the video yourself. You've seen these destroyed Russian platforms on the side of the road, but they still have quite a bit of capability left to them. 

Now, they are concentrating that capability in a smaller geographic area in the Donbas specifically but also in the south. And so, they are trying as I answered earlier. They are trying to overcome some of their logistics and sustainment, their interior lines of communication problems, if you will. They will -- they won't have as far to go in the Donbas to reinforce, resupply, refuel their forces in the Donbas because they have a long border with that part of Ukraine. 

And they are certainly adding combat capability in that part of Ukraine. It is a smaller, again, piece of ground than what they had been trying to operate in over the last three to four weeks. Along, three major lines of access across the entire eastern half of the country. Now they've concentrated it, and they still have a lot of combat power to use there. 

It's also as I said earlier terrain, they're comfortable with. They've been fighting over this -- over the Donbas area now for eight years. So, their commanders, their troops, there's a familiarity with the cities and the towns and the terrain that they didn't necessarily have when they were trying to come at Kyiv from the north, and Chernihiv from the north, and then from Crimea into the south. 

So, we would expect that they're going to try again, through their own familiarity with the terrain and the mistakes they made, they're going to try to overcome that. OK.

Q: Have there been any change, any big fluctuation within the last week or so or last short period of time? I know that senior defense official has put the estimation around 80 percent to 85 percent in the past couple weeks. Is that around the same now?

MR. KIRBY: You mean of the amount of combat power they still have available?

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: Look, I don't want to get into the percentages, and in specific data here on their combat power from the podium. I would just say that we still believe that the vast majority of their combat power available to them, even with the losses. They had taken time, months to assemble combined arms capability outside of Ukraine, aviation, armor, artillery, infantry, special operations, airborne. 

They assembled a lot. And they still have a majority of that available to them, even with the losses that they've sustained in the last few weeks. Yes, go ahead.

Q: Just following up on what Mike Breast was getting out. Could you update us a little bit if you have any visibility into the mix of troops available? How many are -- are they calling on special forces that they used in Syria? Or are they calling up new recruits? What the mix is there in terms of...

MR. KIRBY: We don't have a perfect sense of their manpower. We know that they have tried to recruit foreign fighters out of Syria. They claimed they were going to get 16,000. We don't have a number to tell you that they got that many, but we know that they have actively tried to recruit foreign fighters out of Syria. 

We know -- we've seen indications that they have tried to reinforce their troop levels from other parts of Russia as well as countries outside of Russia and outside of Ukraine. We know that they are refitting and resupplying and trying to put back into the fight some battalion tactical groups that were in the north. That they have evacuated now or retreated out of Ukraine in the Belarus and into Russia. 

We still believe that there's a not insignificant number of battalion tactical groups that they're trying to refit to come back in. And we know that just in the last few days, they have added to their battalion tactical groups in the East and in the South. Again, we don't know exactly where all these units are, or when they were reintroduced. 

But we know they have added to their force levels in the East and in the south.

Q: And just one other thing. The bombardment of Lviv. Is that any sort of -- could we read that as an indication that they have ambitions to go farther west? I mean, it's only 40 miles from the Polish border.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, they've struck -- they struck targets near Lviv before. I wouldn't call it a bombardment. We noted at least one airstrike in Lviv over the last few days a couple of days. Again, I can't get inside the Russian mindset here and tell you what exactly they believe they were striking and with what intent. As I told Sylvie, we're still trying to assess it ourselves as best we can. 

We're not there on the ground, so we don't know perfectly what they hit, or what the intent was. But clearly, they struck out at Lviv, and they struck out in Kyiv over the over the course of the weekend. But most and I think this is important to remember, most of their airstrike activity and artillery strikes are happening in the East and in the south, specifically Mariupol. Barb.

Q: Two questions on two different subjects, if i may. Just to go back on Russia for a minute. You mentioned that you believe they are still having logistics sustainment, and command and control issues even as they put these enablers in forward positions...

MR. KIRBY: We're -- what...

Q: Is there...

MR. KIRBY: We don't believe they have overcome all of their challenges in those regards.

Q: Can you offer any indicators or evidence that leads you to that conclusion?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I think one indicator is that they've named this new general, Dvornikov to take overall command of their forces in Ukraine. They didn't have a single overall operational commander before. We believe that part of that is because they want to to improve command and control, and to try to get more efficient in their logistics and sustainment capabilities. 

Q: They still haven't gotten there?

MR. KIRBY: Again, our assessment is that they still have significant challenges when it comes to command and control and logistics and sustainment.

Q: Does that matter if in fact that there're just devastated areas with artillery and long-range air strikes?

MR. KIRBY: I think it does. And you don't have to look any further than what happened in Chernihiv, and Kyiv, and down in the south to see that it does absolutely matter. Logistics and sustainment, command and control, unit cohesion, operational maneuver, air to ground integration, all that still matters. The air strikes alone were not enough to help them take Kyiv.

Q: Can I ask you about the peculiar situation at Green Village in Syria. First, CENTCOM puts out a statement saying of course, that Green Village where U.S. troops are located in northeastern Syria came under direct fire attack, presumably rockets and mortars. Several days go by, we then are told that there's a statement if you go on their website that says no that was wrong. 

That explosives were deliberately in place at Green Village where U.S. troops are. It seems very odd that the military, CENTCOM was not transparent on this matter to let people know that U.S. troops were victimized by what they assessed to be deliberately in-placed explosives. Can you tell us what the situation is right now? Is there work -- how are you investigating this?

Is there really video that people say there is? Some person seen on video running around the base. What do you think happened there? And why was it so strangely handled?

MR. KIRBY: There's an awful lot there. Let's just start with the basics Barb, it is still under investigation. And as we learn more, we want to share what we can. We're not able to always share everything, but we tried to share what we can. As they dug into it more, they realized that the first reports no shock, right? 

For reports -- try again, using my native language. First reports are usually wrong, and in this case it was. It wasn't a result of indirect fire now -- they now believe that it was the deliberate placement of a couple of charges on the actual facility. They're still looking at this, still investigating it, I would refer you to CENTCOM to speak to how that investigation is going and what the progress is. I don't have an update for you from the podium today.

So, we'll see what they learn going forward. But that's the going assumption right now. It was the deliberate placement of a couple of charges. I don't know anything about video surveillance and whether it was caught on video or not. Again, I'd refer you to them to speak to that. And we don't know, certainly not at our level, have a sense of who placed these charges. 

How many were there? What was the motivation? What was behind this? What was the intention? We just don't know that right now. 

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: Yes. 

Q: Can I follow up quickly on that?

MR. KIRBY: Well, there was four individuals, four U.S. service members who were treated for traumatic brain injury. What I have been told today is that they either are or have been returned to duty, or I'm sorry, either will be soon or they have been returned to duty status. That -- but there'll be obviously because we take TBI so seriously. 

I mean, there'll be follow ups and they'll continue to be evaluated by medical personnel because as you know, TBI can sometimes take a while to manifest itself. So we're taking that very seriously, but my understanding is that they've been -- either have been returned to duty or they will be very, very soon. Yes, in the back there. 

Janee, I'll get to you in a second. I want to get I want to get through Russia Ukraine stuff. Go ahead.

Q: Yes. So, a follow up in Syria. You know, placing charges or explosive devices is not a typical (inaudible) of Iranian backed militias. Is -- are you concerned that there are some insider kind of threat to the U.S. base over there? 

MR. KIRBY: Well, clearly, there's a concern about some sort of insider threat. If the going assumption is now that they were deliberate placement of charges inside Green Village, of course, that's a concern.

Q: And then, who is with the U.S. forces down there in that base?

MR. KIRBY: I'd refer you to CENTCOM. I don't have a lay down of everybody that's at Green Village. I just don't have that, for you today.

Q: On Ukraine, we have heard from this building several times that Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the security architecture fundamentally in Europe. After all these failures of the Russian military is this still the assessment? And do you think that Russia is still a big threat to the European security?

MR. KIRBY: We continue to believe that the European security environment has changed and will stay changed as a result of Mr. Putin's willingness to conduct an unprovoked invasion of a neighboring state. There are failures notwithstanding, that war is still ongoing. And we're still sending security assistance, even as you and I are talking here today to Ukraine to help defend themselves. 

So of course, we assess that the security environment is changed, not has changed, not will change, is changed. And so, we're going to continue to have conversations here inside the department and with allies and partners about what those changes portend for our posture going forward. 

I don't have any answers for you today. We haven't made any decisions. We're not going to make any decisions without full consultation with allies and partners. But we are absolutely operating under that assumption. (Inaudible)

Q: You mentioned it within Sylvie’s question, that Russia is learning from its failed efforts in the north, but also saying that they're still having these command-and-control issues. So, are they learning from their -- from what happened in the north? What are we seeing? What are you assessing?

MR. KIRBY: I think we believe that they are trying to learn from past mistakes. And you can see that in just the way they are conducting the shaping operations. They're conducting themselves in ways that we didn't see them around Kyiv, for instance. So, it appears as if they're trying to learn. 

Now whether they will be successful in doing that? Whether we can say they have learned? I don't think it's -- we're ready to say that right now. I think it's too soon to know.

Q:  And one more if I may on cyber-attacks. I wanted to ask you if you're seeing any military systems being targeted command and control? And how is the U.S. going to respond if the U.S. and NATO are hit by cyber-attacks? 

MR. KIRBY: We -- so you're asking if we have suffered any cyber-attacks as a result of -- there's -- so a couple of DOD infrastructure, Cyber Infrastructure gets assaulted in cyberspace every single day by a plethora of different actors out there. It's something that we have to be cognizant of every single day and work on our resiliency every single day. 

Do I have any information about a specific cyber-attack based on, you know, from Russia or Russia state actors as a result of Ukraine? No, I'm not. Yes, in the back.

Q: President Zelensky said over the weekend, he fears Russia using nuclear weapons. But Ukraine's head of the military intelligence, he says that he thinks Putin is bluffing. What's the U.S. assessment on that possibility that Putin were to use nuclear weapons?

MR. KIRBY: I would just say, two things. One, we noted with concern, as we said, at the time, when Mr. Putin began to use escalating escalatory rhetoric with respect to nuclear weapons at the very outset of this war. It certainly got our attention. Number two, and we said at the time, that that kind of rhetoric coming from a nuclear power, clearly not constructive, and warranted us taking it seriously. 

Number two, and I've said this before, I'll say it again, because I'm not going to talk about the details of our strategic deterrent. But the Secretary remain -- we're watching every single day. We monitor it as best we can He remains confident in our strategic deterrent posture, and our ability to defend the homeland as well as our allies and partners from a strategic deterrence perspective. 

And that's really where I'm going to leave it. Jared from Al Monitor. 

Q: Hi, John, my question has been asked, thank you. 

MR. KIRBY: You're the last question, Janne. 

Q: Thanks, John. On North Korea, and I'll ask a question after that for Russia. North Korea test fired on new tactical guided weapons yesterday. What is the U.S. reaction on this?

MR. KIRBY: We're still analyzing these launches, Janne. I don't have a lot of detail for you today. Obviously, we're still trying to assess what exactly happened here.

Q: How does the Pentagon evaluate North Korea's a nuclear warhead, and size? Is it ready to strike the United States mainland?

MR. KIRBY: I think -- what I would say Janne is North Korea continues to pursue a ballistic missile program and nuclear capabilities, that at least we think they believe, will help intimidate and threaten our allies and partners in the region. And that includes the rest of the Korean Peninsula. Many of these capabilities, some of the ones that they've tested are in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions. 

We continue to call on North Korea to seize these provocations. And we consider them provocations. And to be willing to sit down in good faith and have a diplomatic discussion about how we denuclearize the Korean peninsula, which remains our goal. In the meantime, we have significant security commitments in the -- on the peninsula, as well as in the region. I mean, the Republic of Korea is a treaty ally, so was Japan. 

So, the Philippines, who we're meeting with today. We have significant treaty obligations, and we take those obligations seriously. You just saw, I think, today kicked off a command post exercise that was a semi-annual one. The command post, no live fire, no live movement of forces, but it's a semi-annual command post training event that we just kicked off today that it's I think, a tangible representation of how seriously we take our responsibilities there. 

And we're going to continue to do that going forward. The other thing, the last thing I'll say is, we have said repeatedly, that we're willing to sit down with Pyongyang, no preconditions to begin to have discussions about the denuclearization of the peninsula. And today, rather than showing any willingness to sit down in good faith and negotiate and talk and use diplomacy, the North continues to conduct tests again. 

On this latest one, we're still analyzing it. I just don't have any more detail.

Q: You know that North Korea didn't want to come (out ?) and talking with the United States. How can you make North Korea denuclearization Korean Peninsula?

MR. KIRBY: We still believe here's the Department of Defense that the best way to pursue the denuclearization of the peninsula is through diplomacy. And the Biden administration has made it clear we're willing to sit down without preconditions to try to affect that outcome. And Pyongyang has answered only with more tests.

Q: If diplomacy does not work?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about hypotheticals. We believe diplomacy is the best path forward here. In the meantime, we have serious security commitments to our South Korean allies, and we're meeting those. 

We're making them tangible. We're making them real. This command post exercise it just kicked off today is a good example of that. OK. Thanks. Everybody got to go. 

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