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Government Secrecy Spurs $4 Million Lawsuit Over Simple 'No Fly' List Error 239

Posted by Soulskill
from the government-efficiency-at-work dept.
An anonymous reader writes "After a seven-year lawsuit costing nearly $4 million, a judge has concluded that Rahinah Ibrahim's student visa was revoked because an FBI agent checked the wrong box on a form. That simple human error resulted in the detention of Rahinah Ibrahim, the revocation of her student visa years later and interruption of her PhD studies. The Bush and later Obama administrations obstructed the lawsuit repeatedly, invoking classified evidence, sensitive national security information and the state secrets privilege to prevent disclosure of how suspects are placed on the 'no-fly' list. The dispute eventually involved statements of support from James Clapper, Eric Holder and several other DOJ and TSA officials in favor of the government's case. The defendant was not allowed to enter the United States even to attend her own lawsuit trial and in a separate incident, her daughter, a U.S. citizen, was denied entry to witness the trial as well. The case exemplifies how government secrecy can unintentionally transform otherwise easily corrected errors into a multi-year legal and bureaucratic nightmare and waste millions of taxpayer dollars in doing so."
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Government Secrecy Spurs $4 Million Lawsuit Over Simple 'No Fly' List Error

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  • Um... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @03:52PM (#46231479) Journal

    "The case exemplifies how government secrecy can unintentionally transform otherwise easily corrected errors into a multi-year legal and bureaucratic nightmare and waste millions of taxpayer dollars in doing so."

    Who said it was unintentional?

    • Re:Um... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @03:56PM (#46231535)

      Hanlon's Razor:
      "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

      • Re:Um... (Score:5, Funny)

        by MightyMartian (840721) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:07PM (#46231653) Journal

        Can't we split the difference and attribute it to malicious stupidity?

        • Re:Um... (Score:4, Funny)

          by FatdogHaiku (978357) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:37PM (#46231993)

          Can't we split the difference and attribute it to malicious stupidity?

          Well if we are piling on, why not pernicious malicious stupidity?
          After all, this went on through multiple administrations...
          Isn't it nice to see that both parties can agree on some things?

          • Re:Um... (Score:5, Interesting)

            by icebike (68054) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @05:15PM (#46232381)

            Why not pernicious ass covering.

            They didn't like her, so they just snuck her onto the no-fly list, and now that the shit has hit the fan they are going with a slip of the pencil.

            That's their story and they are stuck with it.

            And it may prove the undoing of the No Fly List. After all, this proves once again how ridiculously stupid the whole concept is, especially when there is no way to challenge it.

            Just change it to a extra-special-search list, and let people fly but check them carefully. After all if they have no weapons in their shoes or underwear, and there are not more than 2 of them on any given flight, what's the problem? There are hundreds of people on the list for no reason what so ever.

            • by AK Marc (707885)
              Someone somewhere made an error. The Government (TM) *never* makes mistakes. $4,000,000 to bend reality to make it true is a small price to pay for government infalibility.
              • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

                by Anonymous Coward

                Who said it was unintentional?

                Why not pernicious ass covering.

                They didn't like her, so they just snuck her onto the no-fly list, and now that the shit has hit the fan they are going with a slip of the pencil.

                Well, the whole point of the thing was that she wasn't deliberately being targeted. There was no reason she got targeted, no hint that anybody didn't like her.

                If you've ever worked in a bureaucracy, yeah, sometimes there's a screw up. Filling out forms is tedious. Screw-ups happen. The thing is, if you're Homeland Security, you can slap a "it's all top secret" onto your screw-ups instead of admitting it and saying "sorry."

            • by geekoid (135745)

              Yes, a large conspiracy to get one women is far more likely then someone checked the wrong box.

              • Re:Um... (Score:5, Insightful)

                by icebike (68054) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @05:50PM (#46232715)

                Doesn't take a large conspiracy. Just one pissed off agent who disliked her.

                The conspiracy comes after, trying to cover your ass.

              • 7years and millions of dollars were spent to make sure that box staid checked. That's a good sized conspiracy in my book. It's a stupid, sucky conspiracy created apparently to protect the nationally damaging secret that we hire idiots to important agency roles and other agents will stand behind them for some sort of fellow agent brotherhood, but I'd still say the word conspiracy works. No offense to better conspiracies.
                --
                I like you're sig; I haven't seen beta, but the whining has to be twice as bad.

              • Re:Um... (Score:5, Insightful)

                by rtb61 (674572) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @11:22PM (#46235247) Homepage

                You are ignoring the real reason for the high cost of defending a mistake, the retention of that power to attack others by a simple flick of the pen. That's the reality of what it was all about, for what ever personal reasons the power of political appointees to destroy the lives of other people and the request of the political party apparatus, be that from within the political party or from significant campaign donors. Keep in mind there was the stated intention of extending to all forms of transport and if you think suspending drivers licences was in there as well for the future, you are quite foolish.

                So it was all down to retaining the power at the flick of a pen to effectively destroy a persons life outside of the purview of the courts and they fought tooth and nail to protect it and they still have not given up on it.

            • by khasim (1285)

              Just change it to a extra-special-search list, and let people fly but check them carefully.

              Probably not going to happen.

              Politicians are, usually, very risk averse. They do not want to be THE ONE to push for a change that results in another terrorist taking over an airplane. Even if the likelihood of that is practically non-existent.

              They don't care who's on the list or even if the list is valid as long as:
              1. They (and their families/friends) are not on the list.
              2. They are not directly responsible for being

          • The weird part is ppl with ties to terror orgs have no trouble getting in.

            Its a serious WTF moment.

        • Re:Um... (Score:5, Funny)

          by avandesande (143899) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @05:13PM (#46232349) Journal

          Or invoke Grey's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice"

      • He said it was intentional, that in no way makes it any more intelligent.

      • by idontgno (624372)
        To paraphrase whomever put words in the mouth of Stalin, "Stupidity has a malice all its own."
      • Re:Um... (Score:5, Funny)

        by marcello_dl (667940) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:49PM (#46232109) Homepage Journal

        Everything can be explained by stupidity, including this post.

        Back to topic: "Brazil" called, it wants its plot back.

      • Re:Um... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by s.petry (762400) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:57PM (#46232197)

        It takes a great amount of insanity to keep blaming the same repeated actions as "stupidity."

        George Gordon Byron
        “Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.”

      • Re:Um... (Score:4, Informative)

        by amiga3D (567632) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @06:10PM (#46232925)

        In support of stupidity I offer this in evidence.

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/... [washingtonpost.com]

        If a man that powerful in the government takes 3 weeks to get his name off the no fly list you know it's fucked up.

      • I've never liked that concept. Especially in situations like this where the person/organization causing the problem is doing everything they possibly can EXCEPT admit stupidity and just correct the error.

        When you do everything you can to hold your ground even when you're in the wrong, then you are malicious.

    • by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @06:08PM (#46232889) Homepage

      What puzzles me is the fervor with which the article repeats the word "Obama", even where they have to rather stretch grammatical rules to work it in ("high-ranking President Barack Obama administration officials spent years covering it up." Nice to know which President Obama: the high-ranking one, not the low-ranking President Obama.).

      This started in 2004, five years before Obama took office in 2009. So I'd say that they ought to give Bush a bit of the blame; at least, say, for the first five years spent covering it up.

      • What puzzles me is the fervor with which the article repeats the word "Obama", even where they have to rather stretch grammatical rules to work it in ("high-ranking President Barack Obama administration officials spent years covering it up." Nice to know which President Obama: the high-ranking one, not the low-ranking President Obama.).

        This started in 2004, five years before Obama took office in 2009. So I'd say that they ought to give Bush a bit of the blame; at least, say, for the first five years spent covering it up.

        Um, it's saying high-ranking officials in the Obama administration, not that President Obama is high-ranking. This was a faux-pas regardless of the political party involved (is the FBI linked to a particular party?).

      • by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @07:39PM (#46233695) Homepage

        Ah. But Obama was specifically elected on a platform of overturning the abuses of the "EVULLL" Bu$hitler administration.

        So, which is more evil? That which openly proclaims its evil and laughs about it, or that which claims to be good but is actually more evil than its predecessor?

        • by HiThere (15173)

          That's what people hoped, but all he promised was change. Perhaps he delivered.

    • $4 million to fix this one, how many simply suffered similar injustice silently and got on with their lives?

      • by Cacadril (866218)
        She probably would have gone on with her life if she had not also later been denied reentry to the USA to complete here doctorate.
  • by what2123 (1116571) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @03:55PM (#46231523)
    "Ah but that will never happen to me" - The Mainstream American Mentality. Source - American, living in U.S. of America.
    • "Ah but that will never happen to me" - The Mainstream American Mentality.

      Source - American, living in U.S. of America.

      Alternate source: the comment section of pretty much every American mainstream media outlet, save Slashdot.

      I like to "joke" that I visit the Yahoo forums just so I can lose faith in humanity.

    • Just imagine how many people are on the "let's kill them with drones" list by mistake.

      That includes the "let's kill the American citizen" list.

      "Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence."
      - someone or another.

    • by Khashishi (775369)

      And, the mainstream American would probably be right, too, assuming she is white, Christian, upper class, and not an activist.

      • by Darinbob (1142669)

        Yes, but a Muslim name, the assumption is sleeper cell terrorist.
        I kid you not, I got some email from my mom, passed on from dubious source trying to scare everyone, about how the "foxes are guarding the hen house" in the Obama administration. What followed was a list of minor government appointees who had Muslim names. Sounds exactly like the 60s with "oh no, there are commies in the government!" hysteria, except replace commie/atheist with terrorist/muslim.

  • by erfunath (962996) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @03:55PM (#46231525)
    Now imagine how many people get to enjoy this sort of thing on a daily basis, and either don't want to go through the trouble of challenging it or can't afford to.
  • Hubris and Pride (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MBC1977 (978793) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @03:56PM (#46231533) Journal
    Sometimes I think the biggest weapon against humankind is our inability to admit when we are wrong. An obscene amount of money and time is fucking wasted everyday because we can't man up and admit to being wrong. I understand the need for operational secrecy, but sometimes just saying: "Yeah, I fucked up." Would be a much better approach.
    • by gstoddart (321705) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:05PM (#46231623) Homepage

      When you have secret evidence someone isn't allowed to see or challenge, this is exactly what you'll get.

      Because it become impossible to tell the difference between some malicious person just arbitrarily putting you on the list, and some incompetent idiot who didn't bother checking.

      My guess, the government never bothered checking any facts during this process -- they just said it was secret evidence and that they didn't need to explain themselves.

      And the government has very little interest in having it come to light that their No Fly List is based on sketchy, unsupported evidence, and that it's full of errors which can't be fixed because they're either lazy, incompetent, or acting in a malicious manner. Because then people would know how lousy of a job they're doing.

      • by AdamThor (995520)

        " ...and some incompetent idiot who didn't bother checking."

        Not far into the comments and I've already seen this kind of language applied to whoever committed the original error. And not to bum on you -- it's natural to be irritated at the source of a problem. This kind of attitude, however, is what makes it difficult to retract a mistake. The agent may be good, competent, smart, but errors still happen.

        Error handling is the issue here, not error commission.

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          The agent may be good, competent, smart, but errors still happen.

          Error handling is the issue here, not error commission.

          And what you do in the face of errors.

          And in this case, either the government just assumed they were right and defended it, or they knew damned well they were wrong and hid it.

          And, I'm sorry, but to me the entire rest of the handling of it is a fault of commission. By denying her access to the evidence (which was wrong in the first place) they denied her a way to properly fight the allega

      • by Catbeller (118204) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @07:56PM (#46233853) Homepage

        Or we can assume, because they took that job, that a large number of the people who make the decisions are Islamophobic bigots running hot from Fox News. A million people on that no-fly list.

        In the 1940s and 1950s, marxophobia gripped the popular imagination, fed by a national security apparatus that really had nothing else to do. The entire country danced the bigot's tango, investigating "commies" and "fellow travellers", ruining tens of thousands of lives.

        If you have a secret security apparatus, bigots consumed with confirmation bias will do what they always do; imply, smear, ruin people. Now we've given them the golden ticket, the end game of all control freaks: a perfect surveillance system.

        As Terry Pratchett says: "Don't give a monkey the key to the banana plantation."

        • by Darinbob (1142669)

          Many of the people who were staunch anti-communist flag wavers have shifted and are now the staunch promoters of Islamophobia. The rhetoric is very similiar just with changed names. Ie, rallying against people who are un-American with supposed secret agendas regarding world domination.

    • by Rinikusu (28164)

      My only thoughts on this are the massive lawsuits that result. "AHA! YOU ADMITTED IT! IT'S TIME TO SUE!"

      Sad, really.

    • That's because we live in a litigious society. That sets you up for a fat settlement payout. Ever wonder why people always say "I regret..." in some statement of admission rather than "I apologize"? That's because the latter is admission of responsibility and the former simply means "I wish it didn't happen" in legalize.

      When Gloria Alred is running around with some bimbo trying to elicit the words "I apologize" that's why (such as she did with one of Tiger Wood's mistresses).

    • by swb (14022)

      I sometimes think this is due to the paramilitary, authoritarian nature of law enforcement, with all of its military-style ranks, commands, etc.

      There seems to be something about those kinds of organizations that is always inclined to hide and cover up mistakes than to admit a simple mistake and make amends for it. The organizations seem highly punitive internally, with a low tolerance for errors. They also seem to look at making mistakes or at least admitting to them as somehow undermining their authority

    • by tacokill (531275)
      We don't have a culture that encourages that behavior. Imagine.....what would have happened if the FBI admitted it fucked up and checked the wrong box?

      I'll tell you what would happen if they said that: all hell would break loose. We'd have claims of racism, we'd have claims of misogyny, we'd have everyone and their cousin claiming to be a similar victim regardless of the merits of the claims.

      The reason people don't say "sorry, I fucked up" is because "sorry" is not an acceptable answer in our so
  • by Alain Williams (2972) <addw@phcomp.co.uk> on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:01PM (#46231591) Homepage

    to Rahinah Ibrahim, not only for the financial loss that this has caused her but the inconvenience, emotional anguish, etc, etc. This should be paid by the individuals who acted to cover this up - not the organisations that they worked for, where the fine would just be added to the national tax bill. The fine must be high enough so that it really hurts all the individuals who contribute to the fine.

    The fine should not be paid by the FBI agent who made the original error, he screwed up (we all do occasionally) and I doubt that he made the mistake maliciously. The fine should be paid by the individuals who were asked to review the case and who conspired to pervert the law of the USA, those who thought it more important to protect a decision by a government department than to see the right thing done. If these individuals are allowed to get away with it then expect this sort of thing to continue.

    • by TheCarp (96830) <sjc@caRASPrpanet.net minus berry> on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:08PM (#46231667) Homepage

      Fine? Excuse me but we are talking about blatent denials of civil rights. We are talking about a criminal conspiracy to cover up wrongdoing and deny her basic civil right to have her grievance heard.

      Fines do not cover this sort of criminal action, each and every one of them should spend the rest of their lives with a felony conviction, and every one of them should do time for it.

      • by Rob_Bryerton (606093) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:41PM (#46232025) Homepage
        Agree completely. And while we're add it, put 'em on the No-Fly list.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:09PM (#46231671)

      If senior government officials can commit perjury before congress and get away with it, I see no reason why anything is likely to be done in the case of some foreigner losing her visa.

    • by Uberbah (647458)

      not the organisations that they worked for, where the fine would just be added to the national tax bill.

      Ah, the "taxpayers" chestnut. First, costs of judgements are borne by insurance companies, not local taxpayers. Second, if the problem is systemic, the system should pay some of the price, not just individuals (see: LAPD). Third, if taxpayers had a line item on their forms to make reparations for the 20 to 30 million people [washingtonsblog.com] the U.S. has killed or gotten killed since WWII, maybe the taxpayers would du

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:40PM (#46232013)

    It seems to me we have become the very thing we used to criticize about the rest of the world.

    We have become the terrorist, the religious intolerant, the torturer, the nation that spies on its own citizens, the nation with secret courts, the suppressor of voters, and the nation that uses government to quell protesters. When fear is our motivation, the most irrational statements begin to sound reasonable and take on a life of their own and strange combinations of bedfellows develop.

    I imagine that even Bin Laden would be surprised the extent to which a single organized attack could inject its backward thinking into a nation that claimed to be so different than the rest.

    • by crakbone (860662)
      "I imagine that even Bin Laden would be surprised the extent to which a single organized attack could inject its backward thinking into a nation that claimed to be so different than the rest." That backward thinking was already here. It's been here the whole time. Read about J. Edgar Hoover or Nixon. The list is many. Giving any government, power without control is going to create this.
    • by AK Marc (707885)
      But when we do it, it's not bad. At least the nationalist propoganda says.
    • Not sure I agree with "terrorist" - that really isn't our preferred tactic. Terrorism is generally the tactic of the weak, we are more "bullies" than "terrorists".

      Can't really object to the rest though, and you didn't mention that we have the worlds largest prison population, most never having had a trial (plea bargains), or indefinite detention - though I can't phrase those as elegantly as you did.

      Its sad, I remember when we used to claim our freedoms were the best in the world, now it seems that we only t

  • by erp_consultant (2614861) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:47PM (#46232081)

    I have light skin and a very anglo-sounding name. One day I go to check in for my flight and discover that I can't print my boarding pass. So I go to the ticket counter and after some hushed tone conversations they give me my boarding pass. This happens three weeks in a row and finally I ask someone why I can't print the darn pass at home. It was then I discovered that I'm on the no-fly list.

    Eventually I was able to get something called a "Redress number" and was then able to board planes like everyone else.

    But what pissed me off was that a) I was never told that I was on the no-fly list b) Nobody was able to tell me why I ended up on it in the first place c) I had to clear my name to get off the list.

    In effect I was tried and convicted without even knowing that I was charged with anything. The late Senator Ted Kennedy was famously put on this list as well. Yet another example of blatant government stupidity and waste.

    • by gstoddart (321705)

      But what pissed me off was that a) I was never told that I was on the no-fly list b) Nobody was able to tell me why I ended up on it in the first place c) I had to clear my name to get off the list.

      The first rule of the no-fly list is you do NOT talk about the no-fly list.

      And the second rule is that since it's secret and arbitrary, you don't have any real recourse -- because as we see in the article, the government will stone-wall you and possibly lie to cover up their own incompetence.

    • There were a handful of political enemies who ended up on the no-fly list around the same time. This is when people had no redress options.

    • by Ksevio (865461) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:59PM (#46232217) Homepage
      Also worrying: If you were on the no fly list, why did they print you a boarding pass? Just because you didn't look like a terrorist?
      • After I showed them a photo ID that seemed to be sufficient to let me on the plane.

        • by Lothsahn (221388) <Lothsahn@@@SPAM_ ... u_bastardsyahocm> on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @08:04PM (#46233921)
          Because the "redress list" is for people who have a name which matches a suspected or known terrorist on the "no fly" list. In other words, (s)he wasn't on the "no fly" list, but (s)he was unfortunate enough to have the same name as someone who is. Since the "no fly" list is keyed by names and not an actual unique identifier, you can be "on" the list even though you're not.

          This is much different than Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim, who was actually on the no fly list. While other Rahinah Ibrahim's would have been able to (and possibly would need to) get a redress number, she would be unable to obtain one.

          http://www.tsa.gov/stakeholder... [tsa.gov]
      • Why not? It's about as smart as forcing people to dispose of "potentially dangerous" liquids in a barrel right before the TSA checks. If they're "potentially dangerous," shouldn't they be disposed of properly? Isn't anyone worried about the contents of the barrel reaching "critical mass"?
        • by Darinbob (1142669)

          The guns in a theatrical play are fake props that can't hurt anyone. Likewise, the liquids in a security theater are just props.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      "a) I was never told that I was on the no-fly list"

      That's the real issue. It should be mandatory people are told unless they are under direct observation.

      This is new. One time I failed a background check, but they couldn't tell me why. It was stupid.
      It turned out there was a warrant issued for me a DECADE earlier in a different state. They could give men any information.
      After thinking about it, I called the county in Colorado where I had gotten a ticket a decade earlier, and they either didn't mark that I

    • by swm (171547) *

      The late Senator Ted Kennedy was famously put on this list as well.

      They wouldn't let him board a flight from Boston to Washington, so he was stuck in Boston for a few days until someone removed his name. Then he flew to Washington.

      I was very disappointed by this. I was hoping that he would stay camped out at Logan airport, and pledge not to fly until the government created a procedure for people who aren't United States senators to get their names off of the list.

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      Another surprise though. Let's say *hypothetically* that there was a very good reason to have you on the no-fly list. And yet you were able three weeks in a row to fly anyway merely by going up to the ticket counter. Were the people whispering in hushed tones actually saying "he looks white enough to me"? It's always been called the no-fly list, never the "no-fly unless you show ID at the counter" list.

  • by johanw (1001493) on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @04:50PM (#46232111)

    More and more bright foreign students will choose a country with a friendlier climate to study. Let the US continue like this and remember how THEY got their leadership position in research: all those scientists who fled from Europe before, during and just after WW2. If the US becomes a country people don't want to travel to they can do the same for themselves when Germany did when it threw all Jewish scientists out.

    • by rainer_d (115765)
      Except, these days they go to Switzerland, which is close enough to Germany, pays their PhDs better and has much less bureaucracy (and a lot more common sense).

      A lot of people still want to go to the US (the US is also *much* bigger, the being able to absorb a much larger number of talented people), make no mistake, but as you point out: the inertia of such a development is basically unstoppable, once it has started.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Except, these days they go to Switzerland, which is close enough to Germany, pays their PhDs better and has much less bureaucracy (and a lot more common sense).

        And yet it seems Switzerland is quite hostile to immigrants. A few years back this poster [theartofslowtravel.com] was made by one of Switzerland's largest political parties. And recently Switzerland decided to limit immigration from EU.

  • when I saw this [imdb.com], I thought it was a fantasy film, not a fucking documentary of American civilisation.

  • by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Wednesday February 12, 2014 @05:27PM (#46232483) Homepage Journal

    Bush, and Obama* where correct in there assertions. Why? becasue their decisions where based on bad data created by someone at the FBI.

    *Some one under them, probably. Remember no president run the day to day affairs of the DoJ. It just isn't possible.

    • Bush, and Obama* where correct in there assertions. Why? becasue their decisions where based on bad data created by someone at the FBI.

      Someone at the FBI didn't create and expand that lawless national "security" state nor did that someone repeatedly try to quash the lawsuit by invoking "state secrets". That would be the responsibility of one George Walker Bush and one Barack Hussein Obama. The buck stops at just one place, and that place isn't the desk of some flunky at the FBI.

  • There was nothing unintentional about the government's actions.

    --
    Don't like beta? Keep protesting until they listen and change.

  • I wonder if all this really just about covering up simple human error, or the govt went to all this effort because it wanted to keep the no-fly list unchallengable.

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