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David Poland

By David Poland

Feinstein/Levin/McCain Embarrass Selves On ZD30 Controversy In A Teapot

Let’s not even get into whether there is any sane situation in which government officials should have the big, hairy testicles to ask a producer of artistic product to adjust the artistic product to reflect their political belief. (Disgusting. And anti-American. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

But let’s go to the facts… which have been abused through this whole mess. Quotes from the Senators’ letter in italics.

Pursuant to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recently-adopted Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program, Committee staff reviewed more than 6 million pages of records from the Intelligence Community. Based on that review, Senators Feinstein and Levin released the following information on April 30, 2012, regarding the Usama Bin Laden operation:

The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the Usama Bin Laden courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier’s identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which Usama Bin Laden was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.

The movie Zero Dark Thirty NEVER, by any interpretation, says that the CIA learned of the courier’s true name or location through means related to the CIA detention and interrogation program.

Honestly, the question of whether Maya did or didn’t have any notion about the existence of a courier before the lunch with the accused terrorist in the film, I would need to revisit with the film (which is due to be delivered tomorrow.)

Information to support this operation was obtained from a wide variety of intelligence sources and methods. CIA officers and their colleagues throughout the Intelligence Community sifted through massive amounts of information, identified possible leads, tracked them down, and made considered judgments based on all of the available intelligence.

As is shown in the movie, Zero Dark Thirty.

The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier provided the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.

I can’t argue with that, as I don’t have that information.

“In addition to the information above, former CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote Senator McCain in May 2011, stating: “…no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.”

And again… nothing in Zero Dark Thirty is contrary to this statement.

AND NOW… a few more selected embarrassments from this note…

“[T]he fundamental problem is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts.”

You mean like reality TV?

“The use of torture should be banished from serious public discourse…”

Do we do that in the United States now?

“[T]he film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the Usama Bin Laden.”

Actually, only one person is tortured in the film. Only ONE detainee. And “critical lead information,” if you wish to believe that describes it, is a passing comment about bin Laden’s courier which is without a useable name.

If, as the Senators—who do not seem to have seen the film—claim, the first inspiration for this angle in the search for bin Laden came from someone who had not been tortured, then that fact—and only that fact —is factually inaccurate. But without further information about that turn of events, there is no way for an objective person to assume that this assertion is true just based on the testimony that’s been offered.

This one fact is the only true bone of contention—aside from a philosophical one—in this entire discussion.

And if you feel that is the beginning and the end of the all things important, so be it. Very few people I have spoken to who have seen the film understand what all this fuss is about. And given the extremely narrow definition of the significance this one fact, I don’t think that actual filmgoers who have not been pre-politicized ever will.

39 Responses to “Feinstein/Levin/McCain Embarrass Selves On ZD30 Controversy In A Teapot”

  1. MarkVH says:

    God, this ridiculous debate is sucking ALL the joy out of my wanting to see this movie. Nothing like an endless online argument with scene-by-scene analysis of a movie nobody but a minority of the country has seen yet. I get the need to defend it, but crikey, sitting on the sidelines while the privileged few bicker over specifics of a movie I’ve been dying to see really blows.

  2. David says:

    You say:

    “The movie Zero Dark Thirty NEVER, by any interpretation, says that the CIA learned of the courier’s true name or location through means related to the CIA detention and interrogation program.”

    It DOES. The tortured detainee gives up key information over “lunch,” but he does so because he has been brutalized on an earlier day. It’s made clear that he is terrified of being waterboarded again—great leverage. More important, the ruse that Maya uses to elicit information out of the detainee DEPENDS ENTIRELY on the previous torture. She basically tells him, “While we were torturing you, you accidentally revealed some key intelligence about your terror network to us.” He didn’t do this, but he believes her because the torture was so awful that he kept blacking out—his memory of what happened is faulty. Believing that he has given up secrets under torture, he proceeds to give up more information, and that information helps the investigation move forward.

    There is no way to say that this extended sequence does not give credence to the idea that torture “helped” the investigation. Without it, Maya couldn’t have manipulated the detainee into coughing up intel. The torture helps Super Genius Detective Maya figure it all out. Yes, there’s an ironic touch later on when it is revealed that the courier’s name was already in some intelligence files. But the movie is obsessed with Maya’s investigation, and for HER the torture helps get her what she needs to solve the case.

    Except that it didn’t happen that way.

    You’ve created a lame “lovers of art versus the dumb ideologues” opposition here. Bigelow’s film has improperly represented the truth of the hunt for bin Laden, and that’s really bad, given its own claims to accuracy, but it’s also very empty as cinema—a creepily mechanistic procedural that appears concerned about nothing other than efficacy. Yes, the action sequences are thrillingly immediate, but that’s not enough.

  3. sloanish says:

    If you read Bergen’s piece, the real guy was interrogated for 48 days by legal means. What were the legal methods? Here’s the quote:

    “Between November 23, 2002, and January 11, 2003, al-Qahtani was interrogated for 48 days at Guantanamo more or less continuously, kept awake for much of that time by loud music being blasted when he was falling asleep, doused with water and subjected to cold temperatures, kept naked and forced to perform tricks as if he were a dog. However, he wasn’t waterboarded or beaten.”

    Do you not think a person going through that for 48 days couldn’t be tricked about what they supposedly said under duress? They gilded the lily a bit with the waterboarding, but if you just saw the above, there would be an outcry that they didn’t show torture.

  4. christian says:

    Tonite on FOX McCain actually said, “Even if we did torture, this film presents a dangerous view of America.”

  5. Joe Leydon says:

    OK, at the risk of making a bad situation only worse: Weren’t the Fox folks actually unhappy because Obama didn’t credit tactics sanctioned by Bush for helping with the trackdown of Bin Laden?

  6. Daniella Isaacs says:

    God, it’s gonna be a long eight weeks.

  7. eldrick says:

    wait till this movie goes overseas and lets see what it does to our reputation all over the world, particulary in muslim countries. this is the most irresponsible film in the last 50 years of Hollywood.

  8. eldrick says:

    by the way a lot of defenses of this film has a lot of “get off our turf” arrogance from the film critic community. not from David neceesarily, but all the snark i see on twitter from that community talking about how everyone is too dumb to interpretate art like their cultured selves are and should trust them on this.

    why dont said critics just say they respectfully disagree, instead its, “uh , people who arent film critics are so stupid.”

  9. Bob Burns says:

    pretty normal for people to interpret the same film differently….. and for some of those interpretations to be based in incomplete observation.

    But, on big things, important themes and issues, the film maker has to be clear – and underline their intent…. “war is a drug”, for example… ya know.

    Sorry, but people are stupid, we all are. If torture didn’t lead to Bin laden in your movie, you have to say so several times in ways (most) people will not misunderstand.

  10. Daniel says:

    It sounds from the comments like your reading of the film is inaccurate, Poland!

  11. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Didn’t we already go through all this with “24”? Didn’t that completely fail to make a ripple in international relations despite its depictions of torture and Muslims (and it was probably watched by more people around the world than will ever watch ZD30).

  12. David Poland says:

    Daniel – You mean because Eldrick continues to run his mouth on this without dealing with the facts?

    My issue with a lot of the writing on this movie is not interpretive, but factual. And I continue to ask… if this issue is clear in any way, why do the people who are lined up against this film continue to spin the facts of what is IN the film?

  13. David Poland says:

    One problem, Foamy, is that people think this situation is like 24… where, as I recall, it was “I’m going to torture you until you give me the information I want… RIGHT NOW!” Even the most extreme interpretation of ZD30 can’t claim this (at least not after seeing the film, as Glenn Greenwald changed his tone dramatically after actually seeing the film).

    When pushed, the argument keeps coming back to “torture is bad.” Anyone who looks at ZD30 and feels the movie states otherwise is not watching the film, but the movie in their own head.

  14. Foamy Squirrel says:

    To paraphrase Truffaut, “You simply cannot make a truly anti-war film”.

  15. Not David Bordwell says:

    Shit, didn’t Tarantino say that about THE BIG RED ONE, too? Around the time that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN came out?

  16. Daniel says:


    I was referring to the detailed description above of the torture sequence. You keep saying that the movie doesn’t endorse the effectiveness of torture, but it seems to do so, and rather crudely. Owen Gleiberman, in Entertainment Weekly, just posted a description of the interrogation sequences that mirrors exactly the account above by “David.” He says that Maya’s detective work absolutely depends on torture.

    In a passage critical of Manohla Dargis’s review, he says, “what Dargis leaves out is that when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, telling him (falsely) that he offered up information that led to the defusing of a terrorist attack, the only reason that they’re able to get away with that crucial lie is that he’s been so bamboozled by torture that he can’t remember a goddamn thing.”

    So are these descriptions wrong? How are these people “misreading” the film? It seems silly to argue, as you do above, that just because it’s a bit more subtle than “24” that it’s not endorsing the idea that torture was necessary to get OBL. You say above that “people think this situation is like ’24’ “—I don’t hear a lot of critics saying that. You have set up a straw man so that you can seem sophisticated by comparison, but the readings by “David” and Owen Gleiberman make you look unsophisticated.

  17. christian says:

    Blurbs on the ZDT screener:

    ” Anybody who thinks this film condones torture is a fucking idiot.”
    – David Poland

    ” Only a fucking idiot think this film doesn’t condone torture.”
    – Jeff Wells

  18. StellaPD says:

    No less an authority than NY Post critic Kyle Smith says waterboarding, while admittedly unpleasant, is not torture. Meaning torture is actually not part of the movie. Meaning all this debate is much ado about nothing. Smith is obviously an expert on what is and is not torture.

  19. Not David Bordwell says:

    I’m pretty sure this debate and the one about Sandy Hook playing out on the interwebs and social media have already crossed the Constitutional threshold and are coming damn close to violating the Geneva Conventions.

  20. christian says:

    God forbid Americans should ever engage or question our actions. Just keep telling yourself: it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie… it’s only a movie….

  21. David Poland says:

    Daniel –

    I keep talking about the facts and people like you keep referring to things they read.

    As I’ve noted before, Owen’s piece intentionally leaves out part of the movie and part of Manohla’s detailed accounting of the sequence. This seems to be the game.

    What he leaves out is time… is what they were trying to get out of the torturee…. that there is a successful terrorist act that he does not give them any information about… and that the courier, which becomes the central focus of the manhunt, is not a significant part of the conversation when they are eating together (which I would consider an interrogation, but not torture… yes, the fruits of torture.)

    So here are Manohla’s words… please explain to me what’s wrong with them?

    “The second session ends with the screaming, babbling, weeping Ammar insisting that he doesn’t know about a coming attack as he is sealed in the box. The final moment is shot from his point of view, and what follows is a scene of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. This juxtaposition of the abuse and the massacre suggests, in cinematic terms, that torture does not save lives. It is only later, when Dan and Maya lie to Ammar, sit across from him at a table, talk to him like a human being and give him food and a cigarette, that he offers them a potential lead. ”

    Owen is doing exactly what the other idiots are doing out there… accusing a writer of leaving things out with some nefarious purpose when only a moron would fail to make these connections. Grown people don’t need a sign, like in a Looney Tunes cartoon, to explain how people behave. This is not a complex sequence.

    And Owen is quite specifically spinning about why the ruse works. It’s stated in the text of the film… repeatedly. The guy who was tortured has no idea what has or hasn’t happened in the world because he’s been isolated AND because he wasn’t allowed to sleep – Not the waterboarding… not the box… no call-and-response demand for info – so he has no defense against being told he said something that helped.

    This film is not “a bit” more subtle than 24… it’s on a different planet.

    But hey, if you are still arguing about who said what, you probably haven’t seen the film. I have. 3 times.

    Owen’s biggest sin is assuming to know what is in Manohla’s mind – or Mark Boal’s for that matter – and then offering up harsh assessment of those alleged choices as though he was judge and jury… and then misleads about what was written to do it.

  22. David Poland says:

    If anything I ever wrote was put on anything next to something Wells wrote, I would politely ask the studio to remove my words.

  23. Daniel says:

    You make no sense. Again, your only acknowledged definition of torture is a “call-and-response demand for info”—exactly the kind of thing that happens on “24.” Apparently, any divergence from this rigid formula—electrodes on penis, an interrogator shouting “GIVE ME THE CODE!”—means that it’s not so bad.

    I have seen the film, and Owen Gleiberman’s description is absolutely correct. You are drawing an absurd line between the “torture” part and the “not-quite-Geneva Conventions torture” part. How can you say that it’s ONLY isolation and a lack of sleep that convinces Ammar he’s divulged information under duress, given the far worse abuse he has been subjected to during his captivity? As if Ammar somehow fully “recovered” from being tortured while languishing in a prison cell—”Hey, I feel OK now!”—then embarked a fresh moral relationship with his captors. That’s ludicrous. Ammar fears his captors because they hurt him.

    I never said that Boal plotted the interrogation sequence in this way because he’s nefarious. It seems just as likely that this serious fault in the film is a result of a desire to streamline a complex narrative. They wanted to acknowledge that torture happened, and perhaps they didn’t want to have a big set piece that led nowhere. I don’t really care about their motives; what matters is what’s on the screen.

    You are overreacting in a juvenile way—calling dozens of people far more eminent than you “morons,” etc. Why? Because, by all appearances, you didn’t fully understand the moral implications of a plot that you found exciting. And that is embarrassing.

  24. christian says:

    This is where DP loses his cred – 80 percent of his arguments end with a variation of calling somebody with a different POV “idiot” “moron” etc. And then he jaccuses journalists of being childish and unprofessional. Oy.

  25. David Poland says:

    I’m amused by being semantic’ed to death… but do please explain how someone was tortured into believing something. Is that really your argument?

    You do realize that the meal takes place months after the torture we witness, right?

  26. Foamy Squirrel says:

    The stupid! It burns! You guys are making me embarrassed to call myself a liberal.

    The following facts are indisputable for both the film and Real Life ™:

    The US used “enhanced interrogation techniques” coughtorturecough on detainees.

    The detainees gave up information under “enhanced interrogation techniques” coughtorturecough

    Information given up by detainees included information about bin Laden’s courier.

    The information from the detainees by itself did not lead to bin Laden’s death, but was part of the puzzle.

    To quote Sir Kevin Bacon, these are the facts and they are not in dispute.

    If you are then arguing, as the earlier EW link does, that the film not being explicitly anti torture prevents it from being great, then that is the stupidest thing I have heard and you should be ashamed for making that argument. Real world is complex, yo.

  27. Daniel says:

    Allow me to explain the interrogation set piece yet again. Ammar is waterboarded and forced into a coffin-sized box. Ammar is then put in prison, where he is subjected to extreme sleep deprivation, which many reasonable people consider yet another form of torture. (The State Department has traditionally criticized governments, such as Iran and Syria, that subject detainees to the practice.)

    Ammar is then treated to a nice lunch **with the man who tortured him**. This is a terrifying encounter—Ammar knows that Dan and Maya expect him to talk, and he knows how awful it can get when he does not cooperate. Yes, I am aware that some time has gone by. Who cares if it’s the next day or two months later, if after being tortured he’s been left in an abject state without relief? It’s all part of one long nightmare. Once again, it is absurd to argue that the detention of Ammar begins with a “torture phase” and then turns into a “spa phase.”

    Ammar is told that, during some period of delirium, he accidentally gave up key information. He believes this lie because he has been subjected to brutal treatment that led to memory blackouts. He then gives up intel that propels Maya forward in her hunt.

    So, to sum up: the lunch-with-his-torturer was not a shift in tactics; it was the culmination of the narrative of torture and mistreatment that was used to “break him down.” In the film, this strategy gets him to talk, which suggests that brutalization is effective.

    In reality, this detainee gave up information related to the courier before he was tortured. And so the main effect of fictionalizing this event is to give credence to the idea that torture works.

  28. sloanish says:

    Daniel, in reality we don’t know exactly what led to what yet. But you are saying two things that contradict each other.

    “Ammar is then put in prison, where he is subjected to extreme sleep deprivation, which many reasonable people consider yet another form of torture.”


    “In reality, this detainee gave up information related to the courier before he was tortured. And so the main effect of fictionalizing this event is to give credence to the idea that torture works.”

    The real detainee, per Bergen, was subjected to sleep deprivation and a host of other extreme interrogation techniques for 48 days before torture. During that time he gave up the courier. So you’re arguing that ZD30 is lying because “torture” didn’t produce results and yet you’re also saying the methods that presumably produced results in real life are “torture.” So is it one or the other?

    I’m interested, if they took the waterboarding out, would you have been satisfied?

  29. eldrick says:

    Daniel Says:

    Ammar is told that, during some period of delirium, he accidentally gave up key information. He believes this lie because he has been subjected to brutal treatment that led to memory blackouts. He then gives up intel that propels Maya forward in her hunt.”

    Game. Set. Match.

    that lie is only beliveable to him because the torture worked.

  30. Daniel says:


    An understandable question. I was careful to say “many reasonable people” consider sleep deprivation torture, but I am aware that many reasonable people disagree on this front. Sleep deprivation is in the Army Field Manual, for instance, despite the State Department’s frequent citation of it in human-rights reports on other counties. Few people dissent on the idea that waterboarding and placing someone in a coffin-sized box is torture. So a detainee who is subjected exclusively to sleep deprivation is a more ambiguous case.

    I do think that the film would have been stronger, politically and artistically, if Bigelow had depicted the case accurately. And I wouldn’t have had a problem with the film showing waterboarding or the hanging of people in a cross-like pose to the point of asphyxiating them (as was done by the CIA in one case). One could easily have integrated another CIA interrogation case into the narrative without losing focus. The problem is to conflate cases and thereby suggest that two of the most notorious and debated forms of “enhanced interrogation” yielded crucial intelligence in getting OBL. This is the most important military action of the past 50 years, so the details do matter.

    It’s not hard to make a narrative hew to the facts and still be dramatic. Nonfiction books succeed at this all the time. And so do documentaries.

    One of the big problems with ZDT thirty, to my mind, is that the interrogation scenes don’t appear to reflect the realities of the CIA program at all. The real CIA program was completely improvisatory and chaotic, with people arguing over methods and making up brutal techniques on the spot. (I don’t know—let’s put panties on the guy’s head!) Most viewers of ZDT, I think, would think that Dan had successfully waterboarded hundreds of detainees. He’s the fully commanding “puppetmaster” figure of countless noir films. It would have been much more interesting to capture the often amateurish efforts of the CIA—interrogations that were often conducted in an atmosphere of political panic, because of intrusive, incoherent demands from the White House. Instead, the film hews to the “gritty police procedural” of countless films and television shows, and is all the more unoriginal because of it.

  31. storymark says:

    “No less an authority than NY Post critic Kyle Smith says waterboarding, while admittedly unpleasant, is not torture.”

    Since when does a film critic define torture? I assume you’re joking…

  32. StellaPD says:

    Yes I was most definitely joking. The fact that he feels like he is an authority on defining torture, as a film critic, I found that very amusing. Unless before writing movie reviews for the NY Post he was a CIA Interrogator.

  33. hcat says:

    I honestly didn’t think I would be reading the word torture this much on movie blogs until after the release of Parental Guidence.

  34. sloanish says:


    I disagree on some points, but that’s completely reasonable. I understand your point now and I appreciate you taking the time to clarify.

  35. leahnz says:

    sometimes reading film critics like Kyle Smith IS torture, maybe that’s how he knows from it. i still haven’t seen ZD30 (dying to) but I was once present during a conversation not long after the revelations of what went on at gitmo i believe with a guy who was ex-SAS and he pointed out the problem with torture – apart from the obvious moral, ethical and legal issues – is that the intel gleaned from torture techniques is notoriously unreliable, people will often say anything to make it stop so sifting through false leads and useless info for one real gem is such a mammoth task and so labour intensive as to render it rather ineffective from a practical intel-gathering standpoint.

  36. watchingAllThatDamnTVHasTUrnedYourBrainToMush says:

    Boal’s defense?
    “it’s a movie, not a documentary” – Boal
    could have fooled… everyone.
    “You mean like reality TV?”
    yes, exactly.
    ““The use of torture should be banished from serious public discourse…”
    Do we do that in the United States now?”
    Yes, we torture. Have tortured. The (un)intelligence gathered in the process led to misadventures through which we’ve lost the pax americana, our constitutional guarantees, and a generation (so far).
    “And if you feel that is the beginning and the end of the all things important, so be it.”
    Sorry, we can’t all be suckers for strong narratives and female leads.

  37. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Hcat – you haven’t read one of DP’s 10-page waffles on the state of netflix lately?

    Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your Sanj…

    Leah – I was part of a liaison team for the Japanese Government for a delegation from the Guantanamo Bay Investigations. (To elaborate, one of the judges happened to be the head of the Sister Cities Program for one of the cities I was working with. That got me the cool but unimportant role, which was probably best described as helping the “Fact Finding” team find decent bars where they could go with their Japanese counterparts. I still learned a hell of a lot accompanying them though, and got to attend the Hiroshima Memorial Ceremony).

    One of the least successful uses of torture was carried out by the Japanese at the end of WW2 – the Japanese were aware of the atomic bomb development, and routinely waterboarded US intelligence prisoners trying to gain information that could be used to prevent any bombing of Japanese targets.

    They were, of course, unsuccessful. The information gained from the prisoners was notoriously unreliable, and sent the Japanese on several wild goose chases which left them pretty much completely undefended when Little Boy and Fat Man dropped. The Japanese officers who ordered the waterboarding were executed for war crimes following the Japanese surrender

    Additionally, from the Japanese perspective, this put the US in something of a precarious position when the fact that US intelligence agents were waterboarding detainees following 9/11…

  38. leahnz says:

    foamy, that’s fascinating (you’ve had some interesting jobs) — yeah good ol’ hypocrisy, it’s all well and good to be against waterboarding when you’re the one slowly drowning, but when the shoe’s on the other foot…

  39. Triple Option says:

    Hi, late to this party but I hadn’t seen the film when this thread started. Frankly, after reading all these entries I’m not sure who’s arguing what. I thought the film was deliberately trying to stay away from the debate of whether torture was “good” or “bad”. It showed it was used. It didn’t try to try to deny it. They acknowledged the info could be unreliable. Even after two specific times when the attitude of torture in Washington was brought up and what that could mean to the agents, they never made a moralizing comment about “they don’t understand how necessary it is” or “well, frankly, that’s just as well. I’m tired of the abuse.” Nothing either way.

    Now as far as what the movie actually says and what the movie will leave with people, I did find it rather odd or perhaps a shortcoming that the torture seemed to be so secondary. Not because the torture didn’t “work” but because we were introduced plot points and facts apart from the elements and the torture sequences seemed to be used to only confirm or deny. OK, that’s real life, fine. What I felt was missing is how did they actually get the knowledge that was being brought into question. That to me seems like it would’ve been more interesting. That was a problem I felt with 24 and other spy thrillers. “We’ve got intel that a bomb attack is imminent against the US. Is this true?” Instead of going down the who, what, when where, how dance, why not just show how that particular piece of info came across the desk to begin with?

    The film seemed to show torture being effective and ineffective. Dude on the ship says he’s had enough and he’d cooperate. The dude from the opening sequence never gives up anything big but they are willing to believe what he’s not saying is important through process of elimination. I didn’t really get the sense one way or another that they could or couldn’t have gotten bin lad w/out the torture. They drew a line through it but because so much was happening outside the torture and that there was never an “a-ha” moment w/the torture, the statement of why was never answered or addressed, they only showed the what, of what was done.

    Trying to go threw and derive a message from the movie on the creative team’s stance I think is purely projection. Sure they may have a clear position but I think that was beside the point. To chase that argument I think is a great stumbling block to what the film was out to accomplish. Do I “know” what the film’s object is, per se? No, but I can see how conscientious they were in not picking a side to that issue.

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