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interview: jack keller
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Jack Keller was an FBI special agent from 1969 to 1997. During the time he was based in Los Angeles, Keller got to know J.J. Smith personally, and in this interview, he describes Smith as a "maverick" who had little regard for the buttoned-up culture of the FBI. Keller speculates that Smith's relationship with Katrina Leung was "all about sex quite frankly. Free sex at the cost of the government." He also explains how the Parlor Maid case may have tainted the FBI's Chinese counterintelligence program over the years. Keller specialized in white collar crime while with the FBI, and he now runs his own private investigation company. This interview was conducted on Sept. 11, 2003.

Tell me what you know about J.J. Smith, about his background, about who he is, about everything.

I met J.J. probably shortly after he came to the Los Angeles office, probably maybe mid-1970s. I arrived there in 1970; J.J. came a few years later. We used to play basketball together. We're around the same age. We had some of the same friends, and we went to lunch occasionally. He worked a variety of cases before he started specializing in foreign counterintelligence. I went the other way and worked white-collar crime investigations, but we would still see each other in the hallways or at various FBI functions. I found him to be a likable sort of guy, a good conversationalist. Opinionated, but jovial, outgoing, likable sort of guy. ...

OK, why FCI [foreign counterintelligence]? Do you know why he took a job over on that side of the house?

He had a background, I think, in military intelligence. He had been in the military before the bureau, just as I had. So I think that's something that probably appealed to him. ...

My sense of him was that he was a criminal division guy, though. He knew how to make cases. FCI guys tend to be kind of geeky and analytical. I don't know if that's true in Los Angeles.

To some extent, that's true, right. They seem to be more the egghead type of guys who don't have a problem with staying in the office and reviewing files and talking about their cases and that sort of thing. J.J., he could have gone into the criminal area, [covering the] reactive type crimes of bank robbery, kidnapping, that sort of thing, and would have done very well. He was a big, burly guy, had a lot of enthusiasm. He was intelligent, a very capable agent. He probably could have done anything he wanted in the bureau. ...

Sort of Eagle Scout, all-American guy, J.J., living in the Valley doing the sort of middle-class thing?

I wouldn't say he was an Eagle Scout. Maybe first class, something like that. He was not a spit-and-polish sort of guy. I think of an Eagle Scout as somebody who is perfectly groomed and physically fit and all of that. J.J. was the sort of guy who was never comfortable wearing a tie. He had the open shirt, his hair was usually messed up a bit, and just was not comfortable in a suit. So he didn't fit that sort of image. He was a little rough around the edges. Pretty outspoken sort of guy, I think sometimes to a fault. He kind of stepped on it a few times with maybe some of his opinions and remarks and whatever.

I think this is all about sex, quite frankly.  Free sex at the cost of the government.

But he was a guy who never had any problems that I was aware of in the FBI. He was very well received, and as far as I could tell, was a team player. He worked hard on specials we had. I think I worked some specials with him, kidnappings and extortions and those sort of things, where you might get a couple of hundred agents working together, following leads and doing surveillances and whatever is entailed in those types of cases.

But he could be a guy who could be a team player. He'd fit in and work with everyone else. He was a pleasure to work with, and that's why virtually all of us, as far as I know, liked him and considered him a friend. He was not somebody I socialized with on a regular basis, but someone I was comfortable with. I could have had lunch with him and we'd have found lots of things to talk about.

You say he was a little outspoken, or you implied that he was a little outspoken. Do you remember an example of that?

Outspoken, I think, in just a matter of opinion and the confidence about what he did. If you were to ask him a question about foreign counterintelligence, a general question, he would expound on it, and he was pretty confident that he was correct in his assessment of the situation.

I'd asked him, [to be] a guest speaker at the Society of Former Special Agents chapter in L.A. -- I happened to be the chairman of the chapter at that time -- this is probably three years ago, and he was still in the bureau, a supervisor. He came out and talked in generalities about some of the cases. ...

Well, one of the questions I asked J.J. at that presentation he made to the ex-agents over lunch was, "Was Wen Ho Lee guilty?" His attitude was "Absolutely. No question, he was." He had taken and secreted the documentation that they accused him of taking. There was never any doubt there were mistakes made in the case, but that was a righteous case.

So he was very confident about his field of expertise. That was pretty characteristic of him, and he had no reservations about expressing those kinds of opinions. He would not be one that would back off and say, "Yes, the FBI messed up on that one." No, he said "No, [Wen Ho Lee] was turning over classified information."

Would you say he loved the FBI?

Oh, yes. I would say he loved his job, just like 90 percent of us do. It's a great job. I was there 28 years, absolutely loved it. I remember only the best of times, although there were some tough times as well. But great camaraderie with my fellow agents and employees, interesting work, stimulating, informative; excellent training. You meet interesting people. I don't know how you could do anything that was more satisfying, especially in the field of law enforcement.

I'm sure J.J. felt the same way, because he stayed until, I think, he was 57, which is the mandatory retirement age, and then he was forced out. I think he was working, as far as I could tell, right up to the last day. I don't think there was ever any question about his work ethic. He worked hard and he liked what he did.

I always had the sense that J.J. was kind of bulletproof -- inside L.A., at least -- because the legend was he had a great source. Did he have a legend like that? Was the buzz out that J.J. has a righteous source, and therefore he gets to be bulletproof?

I don't know that he was bulletproof any more than others who were very good at what they do are bulletproof. ... He was probably like dozens of other agents who were just really good at, and highly regarded for what they did. So I guess a certain amount of leeway is given to those guys, because they're the ones that step up and take the chances and work hard and make the cases. So if he was bulletproof, it was because he had probably developed what the bureau considered an outstanding asset and had a very good track record. He became a supervisor. He couldn't have been too bad in that regard. He must have done something to earn that promotion.

There was no buzz that J.J. had a great source?

Oh, yes, there was. I wouldn't call it a buzz, but I think that it was known to generally a few people. The reason I knew it was that he would come down to the Redondo Beach resident agency from time to time and work with an agent there. That's a small office of 10 people, and I think that agent had probably made some mention of Parlor Maid. I may have heard that name, overhearing them talk about something coming from his asset or something like that. It's not something that I could have expounded on because I didn't know anything more than that, except that he apparently had a good source, a good asset, but he wouldn't have been the only one. There were others that also had good assets on both the criminal side and the FCI side.

No, the thing that shocked me about this particular asset was that the government paid her $1.7 million in services and expenses. I think about half of that was in expenses, but that's a tremendous amount of money to pay an informant or an asset. The only other types of informants that can justify that kind of payment would be the drug informants who turn over cartels and huge drug hauls and that sort of thing. But that shocked me, that she was paid that kind of money. In order to do that, there would have had to have been ample justification for doing it. She must have been very highly regarded, not only in the L.A. office, but in the bureau. The bureau would have had to approve those payments, and they wouldn't have approved anything like that [without justification]. ...

Give me a sense of -- certainly in the 1980s and 1990s, the relative importance, emphasis, etc., of FCI, especially Chinese counterintelligence versus bank robberies, kidnappings, the criminal side of the house, counterterrorism -- where on the pecking order did FCI fall?

Well, my understanding, going back to those years, was that that's when we started prioritizing and say[ing], "What's the most important thing to do?" Working bank robberies went down, actually, and the reactive crimes were sort of down as far as priority. When the inspectors came in, they judged you on how you were doing on the top priority cases, and FCI was the top. It's always been at the top, as far as I recall. White collar-crime was always way up there; now it's terrorism. But those are the three areas that got a lot of attention.

I don't know that they always got the best people, quite frankly, because most guys and gals who come in the FBI want to work the exciting stuff: the bank robbers, the fugitives, the organized crime, maybe the white-collar crime, because we get a lot of people with business and accounting and law backgrounds that find that appealing and interesting. There aren't that many that want to work FCI. So I don't know that they always get the best, but it's important work and it's always been treated accordingly. But being in the position I was in, I simply didn't know what [happened] on that side of the house. They became more and more close-mouthed about FCI operations in the last 10 to 15 years.

As I understand the way it works in the FBI, if you want to climb the ladder, you get your ticket punched in Washington at least once. You've got to run through headquarters, you've got to do some things. That you know of, why did J.J. never do the headquarters stint, never moved around, stayed in Los Angeles?

... J.J. was probably happy in L.A., but still wanted to move up and have a little more say in how cases were handled. He knew he could do it late in his career without having to risk selling the home and moving the family out to Washington.

So that's a way that works. It's just guys that feel like they want a change in the last few years of their careers, but don't want to risk going to Washington. So it can be done.

The office has an allotment of what they call permanent assignees versus those that are subject to transfer. In order to keep good people coming in the management program who would otherwise not come in because they don't want to transfer, they can take them in and, in effect, assure them, "You'll stay in Los Angeles. You won't have to uproot your family and go across the country." So that's how they keep those.

He also doesn't sound like a headquarters guy.

He would have been a bull in a china shop. He was [that], for that matter, to some extent in L.A. He didn't fit the mold as a supervisor who pretty much goes with the flow. I think he was in a way, just based on his appearance alone, a bit of a maverick in that he still had a lot of street agent in him and never had to buy into the program entirely, because he knew he wasn't going to be around that long. Those that buy into it have to keep their mouths shut once in a while and kind of go with the flow and be part of the chain of command.

In a way, it's sort of a paramilitary structure in that you can't be sounding off about your own opinion when your boss is telling you, "This is the way we're going to do it." I don't know that J.J. ever got in a bind in that regard. But I think he was known as somebody who would pretty much tell it like it was.

He develops Parlor Maid. She becomes, apparently, somebody who gets a lot of money, so therefore available evidence would indicate she's got good stuff that's getting passed to Washington.

She had to have great stuff for that kind of money, for the bureau to fly her to mainland China... So yes, she had to have been producing something of great interest to the bureau in order to justify that kind of expense.

And J.J.'s hanging out with her, hanging out with the family, hanging out with her husband, going to her kid's football games, hanging out with her. They're all over Chinatown and at parties and stuff together. What do you make of that?

It baffles me, quite frankly. That's what we call getting too close to your source or your asset, informant, whatever, which can happen with agents. There's a natural bonding that comes from working with sources of information, assets or informants. There's a tendency to become friends with these people and to socialize with them, because you come to like them, and they like you, and you have a lot in common. If you're not careful, you can step over the line, as some agents have done in organized crime cases. We recently had an agent sentenced to prison because he got too close to an organized crime figure.

So there are supposed to be checks and balances to prevent that sort of thing. But when someone gets in a position of supervisor, he's given quite a lot of leeway. especially if he's been a successful agent, as J.J. had been. And then, J.J.'s calling the shots in the Chinese area. So he's in a position to do pretty much what he wants to do. Unless there's some sort of an incident or unless his boss who would be an assistant special agent in charge senses the relationship is getting too personal, then he's probably going to get away with it. But that's something that is taboo. It's just not something that you would do -- socialize publicly with an informant or get too close to that informant's family. Otherwise, anyone who takes a look at that relationship might say, "Well, she's working for the FBI. She must be a spy." That's the last thing you want to happen -- for that to become common knowledge.

So what do you think was up? Why was he doing this?

I've described J.J. as being a very confident guy, to a point of being a bit arrogant. I think he just went over the edge from over-confidence to arrogant in that "I am so good and this asset is so great that I can do just about anything I want. I know how far I can go with this, I've got this under control," and it got away from him. He stepped onto that slippery slope and once he started sliding, he couldn't change directions. Then when he got romantically -- if you can call it a romance -- involved with her, then he went even further down the slippery slope, and there was no turning around.

Once he did that, he was facing termination, if not severe discipline. I'd say more likely termination, had he been found out as having a romantic relationship with her. That would have been enough to get him fired. Certainly the best he could have hoped for is he'd be busted back to agent and transferred off to Butte, Montana -- no offense to the great state of Montana -- but somewhere like that, that he might not want to be.

So that's what happened with him. I think once he got involved, it became too easy for him. It was probably exciting in a way. They were on the international scene and she was a very intelligent woman, which made it easier. She's highly educated, master's degree. She was a very successful businesswoman which, aside from what she may have looked like, attractive or otherwise, made her an interesting person to be around. Her husband was equally educated and probably an interesting guy to be around. She associated with people who would have been interesting to be around. So I think he just sort of got caught up in that lifestyle, and then it got away from him.

Was he probably anguished about sliding down that slope and not being able to stop? Do you think he was introspective about it, or was he just going for it?

You know, when I look back on it now in retrospect, [which] is all I can do, I think he just said, "To heck with it. I'm going to go for it and nobody's ever going to figure this out." Because I knew J.J. in the ex-agents chapter. He actually came in and became my treasurer and was reelected to a second term.

The ironic part about all of that was that, unbeknownst to the rest of us, he knew he was under investigation at some point before this whole thing came down, months before it came down. He'd been interviewed. We'd have our monthly meetings and sometimes have a beer afterwards or just chitchat after the meeting, and he acted like he didn't have a care in the world. He was very enthusiastic about his job. He did a great job as treasurer. He was a promoter, a doer, was great to have as an officer in the chapter. I just didn't sense anything in his personality that would suggest that he was uptight or concerned about anything.

So I think he just sort of compartmentalized it, as others in similar positions have done, and was able to live a seemingly normal life with his wife and son and maintain contact with the office and with his colleagues and feel like he had maybe not done anything so seriously wrong. He's pled not guilty, so it may be that he hasn't done anything wrong; that remains to be determined.

But from what you can tell, from the affidavits at least, and the other things, can you make a judgment about whether J.J. went to the other side? I mean, did he probably know she was a spy for China? Did he think he could play her and own her and she was, in effect a triple agent? How did that stuff get to her?

Well, that's all speculation on my part. But certainly I've thought about it. I've talked about it with my colleagues and bounced my ideas off them as to what could possess him to get himself in a jam like this. I always ask the question, I made the comment, "If they ever trace any money to him from her, he's toast, it's over." Apparently they haven't done that, or at least the government hasn't revealed that there has been money go to him.

That's why this case was properly charged. It was carefully charged, not as espionage where he would have been participating, willingly participating, with all the intent to engage in espionage and turn over classified information intentionally. It was carefully indicted to charge him with what I think he engaged in, and that's gross negligence with regard to the handling of classified defense information. It's charged perfectly. By taking that kind of classified information -- some of which I believe is top secret -- out of the office, I think he was breaking office policy there. I don't think that top secret information is supposed to go out of the office. There's some question about his checking it out and keeping it out overnight or for a few days or so that's problematic.

I think he let his guard down. I think he was probably interested in continuing this romantic relationship up to a point where I understand he even turned over some pictures of retired agents that were taken at one of our luncheons, and this was after he retired. It's almost like, "I don't care if the Chinese have a thousand pictures of me, it doesn't make any difference." I wasn't an espionage agent, either, but some agents who were might have some reservations or would have some reservations about that. But that just told me that he's just trying to keep her interested in some way of finding a reason to be in touch with her, and he was sort of groping at straws at that point. ...

Is J.J. just a guy who walked the line, crossed the line a little bit and is playing a little fast and loose because he's a supervisor and he's always gotten away with it? He kind of likes her, maybe actually loves her. You think he loves her?

I doubt it. No, I don't think so. I think this is all about sex, quite frankly. Free sex at the cost of the government. The government was paying for his sex, is what they were doing. …

That's not to say that she wasn't producing some valuable intelligence information; but now that's all subject to question, the validity of it. Informants will turn the tables and operate the agent if the agent is not careful and scrupulous about what he or she is doing. They'll do that by making up stories that they can sell you about crime or espionage or whatever the case may be, because they get paid based on the apparent value of the information they're giving. So that's the incentive to be able to provide something of interest to the FBI.

It's happened to me in dealing with criminal informants. I've had criminal informants from time to time over the years lie to me about maybe seeing a fugitive or maybe talking about a crime that's gone on which I sensed was a lie. But that's all part of the equation that you deal with [when you deal] with informants, and not always the most outstanding characters that you're going to meet. There's all kinds. You can have a professor or a minister be an informant of sorts. But you can also have con men and street criminals and any number of other types that'll tell you things they think you want to hear.

And if you're sleeping with them?

Oh, yes, that just opens the doors completely, yes. The agent totally compromises himself when the does that. There's a couple of ways you can do it -- probably one is as bad as the other -- and one would be to sleep with them. Another would be to take favors or gratuities or money from them. Both are equally bad. Once you do that, you've stepped over the line, and you can never really-- You have to get away with it then, because you can't suddenly come clean and say, "You know, I was down and out on my luck financially, moving into a high-cost area. I'm paying this guy a lot of money for drug information, and he feels like he ought to share it with me. So he's given to me, for every $5,000 I give him, he gives me a thousand back," or something like that. Well, once the agent gets sucked into that, there's just no return. He's terminated if he's not prosecuted, and more likely he'd just get terminated if that came to light.

[It's] the same thing with having a sexual relationship, especially with an FCI asset. It's one thing to have one with someone who is maybe in-- This happens with police officers and prostitutes and whatever, people they meet in various aspects of their jobs. But to have a sexual relationship, I wouldn't call it a romance, really. It's just a sexual relationship with an asset is just totally taboo.

You think this asset, Parlor Maid, was a spy for the Ministry of State Security, the People's Republic of China?

I think she was an opportunist probably more that a spy. In the legal sense, she may have been a spy, because she apparently or at least she's charged with turning over classified defense information to the Chinese government. She's not charged with espionage, she's charged with the unauthorized turning over, the delivering of classified and defense information. So I don't think they've charged her as an espionage agent as such, but she was selling out to the highest bidder. She was playing both sides of it, but I see her as an opportunist.

She was a businesswoman anyway, very astute in that regard. She had a lot of connections in both the Orient and the United States, throughout the United States. So I see her more as someone who was just feathering her own nest and found a way to finance her trips, her business trips to China, through the government by saying, "Yes, I'll develop defense information for you or whatever it is you're interested in, and you pay me for my time and trouble." ...

I think it's in 1991 they discover she's talking to this guy Mao, who's her handler, [that he] is Chinese. Smith and [Bill] Cleveland hear about it, Cleveland reports it up the ladder. They all fly over there, Smith and Cleveland fly to Washington, a meeting of eight or nine people. What's the scene in Washington? I'm not asking you for specifics, but I'm asking for a sense of headquarters versus Los Angeles/San Francisco and a couple of special agents arriving there for a moment like this, talking about something like that.

It would have been a real high-profile type of meeting; a lot of puckering going on in that meeting, a lot of concern about the validity of the allegation. But, yes, that would have been something that would have rattled a lot of cages back there and caused them to really look into the allegation to see if there's any merit to it, but the bells and whistles were going off. The flag was going up, and everything was there to warrant taking a real hard look at everything about her and her relationships.

But I thought it was interesting that that agent, the San Francisco agent [Cleveland], was concerned enough that he came forward with it. Now, if he had had a relationship with her in the past and he was willing to say, "It's one thing to have a sexual relationship with her, but when I find out she's working for the other side against us as a double agent, then I'm coming out here and taking my chances that I'll get in trouble over all of this. But I'm going to come clean as to what I know about her and her double dealing."

Now, apparently J.J. was not that forthcoming about it... So J.J. wanted to keep what he had going apparently and he took a different approach, and that was one of, in effect, covering it up and trying to bail her out with whatever explanation. He would have had a lot of input into the decision-making process there, because you have to give him the benefit of the doubt in that, number one, he's a supervisor. He's got an excellent track record as an agent. He's worked this informant for all these years. He understands her better than anybody, and there's no reason to distrust him.

Apparently the thought never occurred to somebody that maybe something is untoward her with regard to their personal relationship. No reason to think that, as far I know. ...

But apparently he was able to sell the idea in Washington that she can be salvaged. "Maybe there was some misunderstanding about what she said, or maybe I told her a few things I shouldn't have told her, and she repeated them as a means to try to get information from the other side." Because in these kinds of cases, you often have to give up information in order to get it back. Garbage in and garbage out. So it's just a question of, how sensitive is the information, and can it come back to bite you if you've let it out? So there's always a lot of consideration given to what is given up in order to get something in return.

Field offices, Los Angeles, San Francisco, headquarters. Big, all kinds of cultural clashes if nothing else. Guys, yes, they got to go to headquarters, they've got to pass go, they've got to get stamped about yes, they took her up. But J.J. doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who's going to follow Washington's mandate, advice, instructions necessarily. These are the Washington guys. What the hell do they know about handling an asset, especially a good asset out here? Is that likely to be what he would have thought about it?

Yes, I think so. Oftentimes, some of the people in Washington in those positions don't have as much experience as the guys in the field. I mean, J.J. had been working these cases for 15 to 20 years or so, so he was really experienced. ... So J.J.'s word would carry a lot of weight.

I would have been more interested in what the supervisor from San Francisco was saying. He hasn't been charged in any of this, but was he there, what was his input, and how was it evaluated versus J.J.'s? Why was more weight apparently given to J.J. than was given to that agent?

Especially given who that agent is -- son of a very well known assistant director of the FBI and a highly regarded China expert.

Yes, I understand he's very highly regarded, and that would show in the position he had after he left the bureau. He was at Stanford and he's done some teaching. Again, he was highly regarded as an expert in that area, and had an excellent reputation, as far as I know.

One of the failings -- obviously you can look back and second-guess the whole thing -- but it seems like [to the] supervisors in L.A., people above J.J., this guy's moving money. To move money, as you said earlier, [you've] got to have a second guy there, right?


Somebody witnesses. If you're the supervisor, you see a lot of money moving towards somebody, wouldn't you want to say, "Gee, I'd like to meet her myself. I'd like to talk to her myself. I'd like to find out if everything's kosher. What's going on here, J.J.?"

Well, I'd be surprised if the assistant special agent in charge, who would have been J.J.'s boss, didn't meet her from time to time. So that's a given, pretty much. He would have met her. In fact, with criminal informants, there is a requirement that a supervisor meet with the informant and the agent like once a year or so, just to make sure the informant's still alive and he's still being operated by the agent and the agent's not falsifying the paperwork on it. So that would be something that would be a given.

I would have to think that J.J.'s supervisor would have known this woman, probably sat in any number of meetings with her. I would think several [meetings] during the year. And as much as J.J. was socializing with her at various parties and functions and whatever, it may be that his supervisor attended some of those functions. I don't know that to be a fact, but that could be the case. I don't think there was any big secret. It's surprising that J.J. was an FBI agent, and according to the newspaper accounts, she introduced him as her FBI friend or friends. So that was bizarre, that whole thing. It's surreal. …

What do you figure is the damage that Katrina Leung might have done to national security -- then indirectly, of course, J.J. and Bill Cleveland did to our national security?

... When they confronted her and interviewed her at her residence, she gave up a classified document that she had in her safe, at least one document. That's just not something I would expect an espionage agent or an informant, for that matter, to give up anything that could be used against him or her. Just very amateurish on her part if she, in fact, was an intelligence agent.

But as to what she gave up in the way of value, we're talking years and reams of information. As to the value, I think it's more of a question about, what the stuff that we got from her? I don't see that there was a lot of documentation going her way, in that J.J. and his supervisors would have screened the kind of information that's going to be given to her. As we talked about later, he's not charged with espionage, so he wasn't picking out the juiciest stuff and the most valuable stuff to give to her to sell to the Chinese. So it's whatever she could pick up in the way of general information that he shared with her. ...

What does it say to you, as a proud former FBI agent, about the FBI -- that this happened?

That we're no different than doctors and teachers and professionals. It happens. It gets publicized when it happens with the FBI because it's interesting news. It's certainly damaging. ... It tarnishes the history and the image of the FBI when things like this happen.

The R. W. Miller thing and any number of other incidents that have been highly publicized -- Robert Hanssen was horrendous. R. W. Miller, he was so inept, the kind of information he turned over was probably essentially harmless. Hanssen caused probably the deaths of double agents that were working for us in Russia and other countries. That case was a devastating blow to the FBI. It's way up there in the way of damage. Just like the CIA Aldrich Ames case, again, devastating.

The public forms its opinion based in part on those kinds of stories. It affects the agent who's out working cases in the street, because when he goes to knock on someone's door or visits an office -- he wants them to have a positive image of him. If they think of him, "Oh, here's another one of these guys who sold his country out," even though that's not the case, then it makes that agent's job a little tougher.

So image is extremely important, as it is in sales or whatever a professional might be in. And it's tarnished our image, there's no question about it. But nothing like Robert Hanssen; it's not in that category. This case will be forgotten. J.J. Smith will eventually be forgotten. I would think if you were to do a survey around L.A., 90 percent of the people wouldn't know what you're talking about at this point.


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posted january 15, 2004

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