Missile Wars
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interview: paul wolfowitz
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Paul Wolfowitz is deputy secretary of defense in President George W. Bush's administration and is the former dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He also served as undersecretary of defense in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Here, he talks about the strategic rationale for missile defense, about the need to counter emerging threats, and about the Bush administration's decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. This interview was conducted by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and FRONTLINE producer Sherry Jones on June 12, 2002.

Just to get at the strategic rationale for missile defense at this point in time. How would the development of missile defense, in your view, improve the United States' power-projection capabilities and the ability to come to the defense of an ally?

Let me say something more basic, which is that if you think about what happened on Sept. 11 and what people then would say you can do with an airliner loaded with fuel, Americans should stop and think just how much more terrible it would be if those had been missiles loaded with chemical or biological or even nuclear weapons.

We saw a fictional version of that in this movie, "The Sum of All Fears," where the terrorists put a nuclear bomb in Baltimore. There are countries that are working today to be able to put nuclear bombs on the end of long-range missiles to be able to attack American cities, and that's what we want to deny them.

By denying them that capability, we also deny them the ability to coerce or threaten us in a crisis. If one thinks about how, for example, the crisis with Iraq 11 years ago might have played out if Saddam Hussein had the capability to threaten not only New York and Washington, but Tokyo or London or Paris or the capitals of our allies, it's entirely possible that it might have had a different outcome. ...

So if the United States did have an effective missile defense in the future, it would have more freedom of action, more leeway and--?

No, not any more. We would preserve the freedom of action that we have today. ... Obviously the greatest danger is if [these weapons] are actually used. But even short of their use is the danger that they will give freedom of action to international bullies like Iraq, like Iran, like North Korea.

If you think they're behaving badly today when they're afraid of the United States, just imagine how much worse they'll behave someday if they think they can threaten the United States. Moreover -- and I think there's another part of the strategic reason for what we're doing -- the worst thing of all would be if they could imagine that in some way they could manipulate the United States and Russia into a nuclear confrontation. It's a kind of irony that we're in an era now when, I believe, the risks of deliberate nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia are virtually zero -- and lower than they've ever been since the dawn of nuclear era -- yet these dangerous countries are working on developing capabilities that, if they could, might be used to trigger a misunderstanding between us and Russia, or between us and some other nuclear power.

I saw this in a movie. But what would be a scenario that you have in mind?

Someone once said that history has more imagination than all the scenario writers in the Pentagon, and we have a lot of scenario writers here. No one ever wrote a scenario for commercial airliners crashing into the World Trade Center. I think it's a mistake to believe that we can precisely tailor things according to what we think ahead of time is rational, what a country might do.

We can't wait until one morning we wake up and someone says, 'The Iranians are two years away from an ICBM. Let's develop a defense against it.'

What we know -- and we know absolutely, it's not speculation, it's not scenario writing -- is that countries with very limited resources, like North Korea, are sinking a large part of their national treasure into being able to attack the United States in this way. I think it's incumbent on us to deny them that capability.

When President Bush was a candidate, he spoke in his speech [at the Citadel in South Carolina] about the missile defense issue. He put it in the context of China's military capabilities. ... He noted that a Chinese general had talked about China's military potential to strike the United States. Do you think the development of the missile defense would enhance the United States' credibility, or ability, to defend Taiwan?

Once again, the context of that statement in the speech was to point out the dangers of being exposed to blackmail -- nuclear blackmail. The case he cited was a case where a Chinese general was obviously indulging in that kind of nuclear blackmail. We've seen it at other times in history.

We're most concerned about it with countries where the basic rationality of the leaders is in doubt. But it makes no sense whatsoever -- in an era when technology allows us to take away that ability to attack us with a single missile or a few missiles -- to leave ourselves vulnerable to that threat. It might have been something we had to live with during an earlier period. We don't have to live with it now, and we shouldn't.

Would an effective missile defense essentially neutralize China's nuclear deterrent? China has about 18 long-range missiles at this point in time, and they're planning a modest expansion. If you were to develop an effective defense, would it be good enough to blunt China's potential to strike the United States? Or should the U.S. be resigned to being vulnerable to the Chinese, or those strikes?

We're always going to be vulnerable to a large-scale attack from a country with a capable nuclear force, and that includes China. It certainly includes Russia. What we don't have to be vulnerable to are limited attacks, particularly those that would come from countries with only very limited capabilities.

But do you think this would give the United States an enhanced ability to defend against the Chinese?

Not in a sense that people fantasize about. The truth of the matter is that the Chinese have lived quite comfortably for decades now with overwhelming American nuclear superiority. We've never used it to coerce China. They've never shown the slightest fear that we would use it to coerce China.

China, in the future, is going to have even more nuclear capability than it has had in the past. I don't believe that they have anything to fear from the United States, and I frankly don't believe they do fear the United States.

What they may be concerned about is [Taiwan]. They have used ballistic missiles to try to coerce Taiwan. They've fired them. They've threatened with them. That's a very dangerous development, and to the extent that they can be persuaded that it's not a good line to go down, it would be a very helpful thing. But we're not going to be in the business of nuclear confrontations with China.

The Nuclear Posture Review called for the possibility of a near-term emergency missile defense in the 2003 timeframe. You testified to the Senate that we could have four prototype interceptors in place in Alaska by the 2004 timeframe. That was some months ago. What is the strategic rationale for that particular kind of capability? What threats are you worried about, and why would such a capability be necessary in such a hurry?

To put it in context, the purpose is not primarily to have that prototype capability. The purpose in the first instance is to develop a realistic test bed, where we can begin to test ballistic missile defense in a context where we're not just sending up an artificial test on an artificial azimuth, but actually to do things as they might be in the real world.

With our withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, we're finally able to start construction in Fort Greeley, [Alaska], of this experimental test bed. Now one of the advantages of doing it up at Fort Greeley is that that is almost an ideal location, if the experimental test bed works out and the North Korean missile development advances. It would be an almost ideal location to have a limited ground-based defense in the United States. That's what we're talking about.

The emergency, presumably, would be an emergency occasioned by that kind of North Korean development. Frankly, I believe the knowledge that we have that capability may be a deterrent to the North Koreans to push their development too hard or too fast.

I'd like to take you back to the Rumsfeld commission [the 1998 commission to assess the ballistic-missile threat] ... and the role of the commission in reassessing this threat, and basically redefining it. [Rumsfeld] had a lot of influence on the national debate on it. In looking at the threat, the Rumsfeld commission pointed out the potential of collaboration among Third World countries in the development of ballistic missiles, and it pointed out that there are various shortcuts that could be taken in flight-test programs. But don't you think that the Rumsfeld commission essentially took a worst-case view toward the ballistic-missile threat?

No. Absolutely not. In fact, one of the striking things about the Rumsfeld commission, which was a nine-member commission, is it was picked to be very bipartisan. I believe it was five Republicans and four Democrats. A number of the Democrats particularly -- and even one of the Republicans -- were long known to be skeptics about missile defense, and there was no consensus among this group about what the answers were. But at the end of months of very intensive work, we came to a unanimity that the threat was real, that it was much bigger than I think any of us had conceived going in. There were several reasons for it, but the principle reason was, in fact, that there was a level of cooperation among these bad actors that was something we just weren't used to.

It used to be that when a country joined the nuclear club, they suddenly decided that it was just large enough, and they didn't want to help anyone else join. I think that was the experience of the Soviet Union. It was the experience of France, even China.

Now we have countries joining the nuclear missile club who say "the more the merrier." North Korea is out selling its dangerous technology to anyone who wants to spend the money to buy it. We see collaboration among a variety of countries. So the notion that they're dependent only on their indigenous technology to develop, which had been the basis of the previous assessments, was simply wrong. They had been moving ahead fast. Even during the course of our work on the ballistic-missile commission, there were a number of surprises in terms of demonstrated capabilities by the North Koreans and others that were way ahead of what the intelligence projections had been.

Well, one of the contentious aspects of the Rumsfeld commission was that it said that a nation could possibly deploy an ICBM in such a short period of time that it might not be detected in time by American intelligence. When the Rumsfeld commission was doing this analysis, I remember that General Shelton, speaking more or less on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called this an unlikely development. Do you really think an adversary could deploy an ICBM capability without the intelligence community picking up on it?

I think you're overstating. The core of the conclusion was that a number of countries could have ICBMs within five years of a decision to do so; that we would not detect the decision; and that we would probably pick up some signs probably at some point in that five-year period, but it might be very close to the end of the five years. So you could no longer count on any significant period of warning, not even the five-year period of warning.

Let's keep all this in context. It takes us a very long time to develop the counters to these people. There was sort of a tendency in the late 1990s to try to predict down to the precise year when a missile threat would develop. We can't predict to a precise year when our missile defense capabilities will develop. Eleven years ago, during the Persian Gulf War, we took a number of bad hits -- the Israelis took even more -- from Iraqi Scuds. We couldn't defend against those missiles then. We've worked hard. Eleven years later, we are finally able to deploy a defense against Scud missiles, which are relatively easier to defend against.

It may take five, ten years to develop that capability against ICBMs. We're well on the way to doing it, but we can't wait until one morning we wake up and someone says, "The Iranians are two years away from an ICBM. Let's develop a defense against it."

Let me follow up that point. You said one purpose of this is to preserve the strategic freedom of action of the United States in the future contingency with an Iraq sort of adversary, or Iran or North Korea.

I think I put it a little differently. It's to deny these rogue states freedom of action to bully their neighbors.

Well, and preserve the U.S. freedom of action to come to their defense. But do you think that in a period of time of five or ten years -- let's imagine there's such a scenario, there's a confrontation in East Asia or in the Middle East. A country there has a ballistic missile capability. The United States is going to dispatch forces to that area. The president turns to you or to someone in your position and says, "Look, we're sending forces out there. They're rattling a missile. Can I really count on this defense system or this midcourse apparatus" -- whatever you have in place in a five to ten-year period -- "to defend the United States from the missile strike? Can I really bet the nation's security on that?" What kind of answer do you think you'd be able to provide in a five to ten-year period?

I can't predict the future. Precisely what I can tell you, for an absolute certainty, is that I'd much rather have some capability than none at all. I can also tell you that even today -- not five or ten years from now -- if our troops are deployed to any number of places that we're worried about, the troops themselves are going to face very heavy [short-range] ballistic-missile threats, particularly in Korea, but also in the Persian Gulf. While we've made great progress in our ability to defend against them -- we now have a system called the PAC-3, if I can use a Pentagon acronym, which is a ground-based system that can stop an incoming ballistic missil -- there are a number of valuable technologies, particularly airborne laser, that we've been prevented from pursuing up until now by the restrictions of the ABM Treaty. We could be in a much better position -- much, much better -- five or ten years from now to defend our troops and, I'm almost sure, to be able to defend our people.

Well, what I've heard people say is, "Something is better than nothing."

A lot better than nothing.

There will be some sort of defense in place in a five to ten-year period. But what I haven't heard people say here is that they're very confident that they can erect even a limited defense in that sort of timeframe that would have high probability of stopping a ballistic missile attack on the United States.

Because we're still in an experimental development phase of the technology. Until we can say with some confidence that it will have those results, we're not going to invest huge amounts of money in building those kinds of defenses.

But look at it from the other end. We've made extraordinary progress. The Scud missile has a re-entry velocity, I believe, in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 3,000 miles per hour -- only two to three thousand miles per hour. That's hitting a bullet with a bullet. After 10 years of work, we can now hit a bullet if it's traveling only a mere 3,000 miles an hour.

What we're really aiming at [with long-range ballistic missile defense] is hitting a bullet that's traveling between 10,000 and 15,000 miles per hour. But we've done that successfully already now in three tests. They're tests. They're somewhat artificial. The conditions are somewhat arranged. But we're making really quite amazing progress.

I'm not sure on what basis John Kennedy said, in 1961, that we could put a man on the moon in 10 years, but I must say, in a way, what we need to recapture is some of the pioneering spirit of America of 30, 40 years ago. We put ballistic missile submarines -- one of the marvels of modern military technology -- in the water within six years of a decision to do so. And, frankly, we didn't do it by deciding on day one that it could be done. We decided on day one we were going to do it.

I think we do the same thing here with missile defense. If this country puts its mind to it, we can succeed. We're not talking about the national treasure. We're talking about 2 percent to 3 percent of our of our defense budget.

But if I asked you if 10 years from now we would have an effective system in place that could stop a small-scale attack with high probability, [what] would you say?

I think we have a very good chance of doing it. The only way to have that chance, though, is to continue with a vigorous program of research and development. That's what the president has proposed to the Congress, and, frankly, we hope we can get support from the Congress. That's still in doubt.

In that respect, there's a concern over, I guess, the increasing degrees of classification pertaining to the missile defense program -- that the nature of the future tests, the nature of targets, might be classified, a lot of the data that had previously been unclassified would now be classified -- and that this will inhibit congressional scrutiny and make it more difficult for critics to determine whether this, indeed, is an effective system or not.

Forgive me, but I think that's nonsense. We've been posting, it's true, an extraordinary amount of information about what we're doing in unclassified form. But we're entering a different period now. We're entering a period in which we're actually deploying these systems to defend our troops, and the last thing we should be doing is giving the details of how our defensive systems work to enemies who are going to attack us.

We're perfectly willing to give all of that information to the U.S. Congress, and any consultants they want to bring in with clearances to examine that data are able to do so. There's no question of denying. In no way are we denying this information from the people with legitimate oversight. We are denying it from the enemies of the United States. I believe the American public understands that it's ordinary military secrecy.

Let me take you back to the threat again. The 1995 National Intelligence Estimate, which has been presented in declassified form, much maligned, said that there wouldn't be a threat anticipated before a 15-year period. If you actually look at the trends in ballistic missiles now, isn't it the case that the 1995 NIE stands up pretty well, that we're now in 2002? North Korea tested the Taepo Dong I. It wasn't a success, although they did have state separation. There's been no test since then. It's unlikely that the Iraqis are going to have any kind of ICBM within the decade. If you were to look, a lot of the worrisome trends that the Rumsfeld commission cited, about crash programs on behalf of Third World rogue states to rush systems into the field, that they could deploy against us at a moment's notice, that hasn't materialized. Doesn't the 1995 NIE stand up pretty well?

I don't think so. In any case, to some extent the conclusions of the Rumsfeld commission are a kind of self-defeating prophecy. I believe that by calling attention to these dangers -- certainly in the case of North Korea -- it greatly increased the intensity of diplomatic pressure on the North Koreans.

I'm not sure what that's achieved. It has certainly [decreased] the level of visible effort on the part of North Korea. We know so little about what goes on inside that country that we can't say for sure what kind of development they're doing. One of the points about the conclusions of the Rumsfeld commission was the countries that are developing these primitive capabilities do not need to do 10 or 20 tests in order to have confidence in the system the way the United States does. North Koreans, in fact, deployed the No Dong system after only one successful test. That was one of the fairly shocking discoveries that is kind of buried in a deeply classified compartment out at the CIA. When you recognize that they do things very differently from us, I don't think you can be as comfortable as the question implies -- that what we're seeing now is all that's there.

Certainly what the Iranians continue to work on with a lot of Russian technology could come well within the predicted timeframe that the NIE did. But, look, our real goal as a country should be, as the president underlined in his State of the Union message, to get those countries out of this business entirely. It would be wonderful if we could do so. But I believe demonstrating also that those kinds of attacks are not going to be successful is part of that diplomatic strategy.

You indicated you thought the 1995 NIE was maligned with good reason. What was wrong with it?

Well, if you read it very carefully it was, in a very narrow sense perhaps, strictly accurate. It said if countries proceed only with their indigenous resources, it will take them a long time to do it. The problem is there isn't a single country in the world that is proceeding only with its indigenous resources. That was really the most dramatic discovery, I would say.

The thing that came to all of us on the Rumsfeld commission as the greatest surprise was to understand just how much these bad actors were helping one another and, moreover, how much help was coming to them from Russia and China, some of it officially sanctioned. In the case of Russia, I think a great deal of it is just leaking out through people who are trying to make money. But the controls over the technology just have almost fallen away completely, in the case of that group of countries.

[We hear] consistently that if weapons of mass destruction are used in the United States, they're likely to be deployed by other means than a ballistic missile, [such as terrorism]. Didn't your commitment to missile defense divert [attention] from these other threats that face the United States, in terms of resources and energy?

I don't think so at all. If we want to talk about the CIA's ability to forecast threats, obviously nobody, including at the CIA, estimated what suicide hijackers might do. I think it's a mistake to believe that we can predict or focus on one threat and ignore others. There's no question, if we build capable defenses against ballistic missiles, that's not the way people will attack us. They'll attack us with cruise missiles, they'll attack us through terrorists. That's not a reason to ignore terrorists or to ignore cruise missiles. We need to look at the whole thing in a balanced way.

A very intensive effort was underway to think about how Al Qaeda could attack us and to work on it. I think everything that people could imagine was done, and an enormous amount of money was spent. We missed something, OK, but that doesn't mean, therefore, we should leave the door open to a ballistic missile threat.

If it were so obviously a useless thing to do, then I'd have to ask the question, why are the North Koreans sinking a large fraction of their limited national treasure in it? Why are the Iranians putting so many resources into it? Why is Saddam Hussein putting such an effort into it? In fact, it is a very real threat.

Without any question, short-range ballistic missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles are a threat today to our troops, and it's a growing threat. They're a threat to our allies, and it's a growing threat. I think it's only a matter of time before it becomes a threat to the American homeland, to United States territory.

But it's a matter of priorities. The Maginot Line was, in effect, the defense against a certain type of threat. What critics would say is that this is essentially the technological Maginot Line in the sky. ... I recall reading that, at one point, Secretary Rumsfeld even threatened to veto the defense legislation, because it had an amendment that would have reprogrammed several hundred million dollars from missile defense to counterterrorism. Is that the right sense of priorities, or are you giving far too much weight to the ballistic-missile threat?

The problem with a Maginot Line was that people didn't invest in the other things. As I said, missile defense is less than 3 percent of our defense budget. Ninety-seven percent of our defense budget is going into other things. Our defense budget isn't the only -- in fact, it's probably not the primary means by which we counter terrorists.

We've got to look at these things broadly. We've got to consider everything. But it seems to me that, just as I don't think one should say there's no point in defending against terrorists because we're vulnerable to ballistic missiles, that once you turn around and say that, there's no point in defending against ballistic missiles because we're vulnerable to terrorists.

We should reduce our vulnerability as much as we can against all of these threats, particularly those that could involve weapons of mass destruction, which would make the horror of Sept. 11 look small in comparison.

In the State of the Union address, President Bush, when he used his famous phrase, "axis of evil," he basically put the world and certain countries on notice that the United States would not sit idly by and let certain threats develop to our territory. He opened the door, essentially, to pre-emptive action, if necessary, to preclude these threats. It's a theme that's been taken up in recent weeks by senior administration officials as well. If the Bush administration is willing to contemplate pre-emptive action to preclude weapons of mass destruction and stop them as a threat to the United States, why is it so important to build a missile defense on a crash basis? Does the fact that there's this thinking about a pre-emptive option indicate that the administration itself doesn't think there's going to be an effective missile defense in the next five to ten years?

... Since Sept. 11, the administration and the country have been thinking about preventive action. "Pre-emptive" sort of prejudges that it's going to be military. "Preventive action" includes a wide range of instruments, including political and diplomatic instruments, to prevent these threats from emerging, to deal with them before they hit us.

With 20/20 hindsight, one could dearly wish that we'd taken more preventive action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and prevented Sept. 11. But Sept. 11 was nothing compared to what terrorists or states could do with weapons of mass destruction. As the vice president said, this time we're not going to wait until it's too late. So, yes, there are options open to defend the country, instead of just waiting for an attack to come.

But I would say a couple of things. First of all, I think our ability to engage in that will be much stronger if the countries pursuing those kinds of programs realize that they're not giving up much value, because the United States can deal with it. ... It will be great if we succeed in all those. We're a long way from having succeeded.

Finally, I come back to an important point which has to be emphasized. It's the point of which our military are most conscious, and that is we face threats of ballistic missiles of many different ranges. It's the only conventional weapon in which our opponents have a real ability to hurt us, and was the only Iraqi capability during the Gulf War that we underestimated. If we have an effective missile defense program across the board, at all ranges, it's going to increase our ability to protect our troops. ...

[The U.S. is set to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. What is the Russian reaction?]

Some people feared that [withdrawal from the ABM Treaty] would spark a terrible new arms race between the United States and Russia. It has done nothing of the kind. In fact, it's taken place during an era when U.S.-Russian relations have improved to a degree that's unprecedented. It's taken place during a period when the United States and Russia agreed on reductions in our nuclear forces that were unprecedented. I don't think it's a surprise. It shouldn't be a surprise, because we and the Russians are not enemies any longer. Over time, Russia, with its various neighbors, may have more to fear from ballistic missiles than the United States does. In the long run, having capability to defend against ballistic-missile attack will be something that the United States and Russia will want to work on together.

The Russians, however, have kept their options open under the Treaty of Moscow, to withdraw with 90 days of notice. They can now, thanks to the treaty, develop MIRV missiles, which will give them more of a capability to expand their force should they make that judgment in the future.

But there's no sign that they're heading that way. The Russians don't need to spend their national treasure in that fashion. I think we've made it clear we're not going to spend ours that way. I think there's very little reason to fear that the course we've set ourselves on with the Treaty of Moscow is going to be reversed.

There is concern that the Chinese may expand their arsenal beyond what they have initially projected. I recall the CIA had a judgment the other year that a missile defense would go to the Chinese, essentially to build up more than they otherwise would to preserve their deterrent capability, and that the risk in this is that India might then build up more to match the Chinese, and Pakistan might respond to the Indians. It would create sort of a horizontal proliferation frenzy.

To me, that's a lot of mirror imaging of what we've seen too much in the past. The Chinese, no question, are building up their nuclear forces. They started long before they had any serious thought about an American missile defense system. I think they're going to continue. I'm not sure what level they will go to. I hope they will decide that this is not something they need to invest in on a massive scale. But I think American missile-defense capability, when they actually see it, is not something that's going to keep them awake at night.

You said earlier in the conversation that the technology now allows us to move forward in a robust way developing national missile defense. What technology were you referring to?

The most striking technological development has been our ability to do intercepts of incoming ballistic missiles with ground-based interceptors. We've demonstrated at a tactical level against short-range ballistic missiles that re-enter at a speed of around 3,000 miles per hour -- only 3,000 miles an hour. It's extremely fast, but only to a ballistic missile expert is it a slow, slow, slow object.

We can now hit a bullet with a bullet, actually put a defensive interceptor package right on top of that 3,000-mile-an-hour object. We've done three successful tests against objects coming in at ICBM velocities, the velocity of intercontinental ballistic missiles. That's the 10,000-15,000 mile-an-hour range. Just stop and think of how fast that is. It's a remarkable engineering achievement. It's now down to getting the engineering details for that particular technique.

But, in fact, some of the more promising techniques, such as using lasers to intercept missiles when they are still in their boost phase and moving slowly, the so-called air-borne laser program, that's one that we haven't been able to pursue up until now as vigorously as we would like because of the ABM Treaty. Now we'll move ahead with a number of those.

As I'm sure you know, many of the people that we have talked to in connection with the research of this program are scientists. Some people who were former contractors who have worked on trying to develop national missile defenses, specifically in midcourse, essentially have said to us that they believe that the problem with decoys -- the kill vehicle distinguishing a warhead from a decoy -- is never going to be solved. It's not an engineering detail, as some of these other matters are, but it's quite simply a matter of physics, the vacuum of space.

There were some famous German physicists, including some Nobel Prize-winners, who said it wasn't possible to build an atom bomb. I'm a little skeptical of people who aren't engineers, trying to solve a problem, saying it's impossible to solve a problem. History is just littered with problems that were solved that were supposed to be impossible.

But, in fact, we also know that that's one of the reasons why we want to pursue a broad-based program that doesn't just depend on midcourse intercept. In particular, [that's] why we think the boost-phase intercept is, perhaps, the most promising way to go, because it's, as far as I can see, impossible to decoy or disguise a missile when it's hot and burning in boost phase. It's moving slow and its payload is intact. Those are all reasons why it's the ideal place and time to get it. There are limitations, but that's clearly one of the avenues of technology that we need to pursue. We have not pursued it adequately or strongly enough largely because of the restrictions of the ABM Treaty.

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