Some Explaining to Do

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 7, 2007; 1:14 PM

It's time for President Bush and Vice President Cheney to come clean about their roles in the White House's outing of a CIA agent and the ensuing cover-up.

It's actually long past time. But with former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby's conviction on charges of perjury and obstruction yesterday, the stench of corruption has taken formal residence at the White House.

The president and vice president can pretend it's not there, and can continue to hide behind their weak and transparent excuse for not commenting on an "ongoing criminal investigation".

But the trial is over. The investigation is over. And the conviction of a liar in their midst has made it more imperative than ever that the leaders of this country fully address the American people's legitimate concerns that the lies in question were intended to hide from public view even deeper skullduggery at the highest levels of the administration.

As special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald noted in his closing arguments (see my Feb. 21 column, The Cloud Over Cheney) Libby's lies have left all sorts of issues unresolved.

Cheney was at the fevered center of the effort to discredit administration critic Joseph Wilson, which resulted in the exposure of his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative. Indeed, Cheney was the first person to tell Libby about Plame. Cheney authored talking points that quite possibly encouraged Libby and others to mention Plame to reporters. Cheney was the only person to whom Libby confided his implausible cover story -- that he had first heard about Plame from NBC's Tim Russert. And at Cheney's request, Bush secretly declassified portions of a National Intelligence Reports so that Libby could leak them to Judith Miller of the New York Times.

The White House yesterday once again trotted out its "ongoing criminal matter" rationale. But that was never much of an excuse and at this point it is utterly pathetic. Any danger of influencing the investigation or the jury pool, to the extent that was ever a legitimate concern, is past. The chances of a retrial are almost nonexistent. In reviewing a conviction, an appellate court cannot look outside the trial record. Fitzgerald says he and his fellow prosecutors are going back to their day jobs.

And there is an enormous public-policy factor here -- something more important than the vague, theoretical possibility of influencing a fair trial. Just for example, no executive of any company would be allowed by his shareholders to remain mum on a top aide's indictment -- not to mention conviction. He'd be fired.

Why are Bush and his aides hiding behind such hollow excuses? Probably because they know that if they did talk, it might just make things worse. Arguably, they still don't think Libby did anything wrong, putting them in the awkward position of disagreeing with a federal jury's verdict. And in explaining what they say really happened, they might risk either exposing more unseemly facts or being caught in a lie.

But the main reason they are hiding behind these excuses is that they can. There's been no public cost to them from not talking.

That, of course, is where the news media come in. When the public has a need to know and the government won't meet it, the media are at their most righteous in demanding information -- and, when being denied, in constantly reminding everyone that the government is stonewalling.

Reporters yesterday glibly expressed no surprise by the White House's refusal to comment. The proper response, however, is sustained outrage, until every last critically important question is addressed.

Among those questions, just for refresher purposes:

* What did Bush know and when did he know it?

* Did Cheney tell Libby to leak Plame's identity to reporters?

* How involved was Cheney in the cover-up? How involved was Bush?

* Why is Karl Rove still working at the White House?

* What are the ethical standards for this White House? What is considered acceptable behavior and what is not? What is a firing offense?

White House Press Briefing

Deputy press secretary Dana Perino was sent out to tell the press the president wouldn't comment about the case. Here's the transcript of her briefing.

"Let me start off by saying that the President was informed by -- he was in the Oval Office. He saw the verdict read on television. Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Counselor Dan Bartlett were with him.

"He said that he respected the jury's verdict, that he was saddened for Scooter Libby and his family, and that the White House direction from here on out -- and I know that there's going to be a lot of disappointment with this, but there is an ongoing criminal proceeding.

"Scooter Libby's attorneys just announced that they are going to ask for a new trial and that they are going to -- failing that, they will appeal the verdict. And so our principled stand of not commenting on an ongoing legal investigation is going to continue. I know that's going to be very disappointing for many, but that is the decision that we're going to -- that we've made, and the decision -- and the practice that we're going to continue on the way forward. . . .

"Q: Does the President feel like there's any responsibility to figure out a way to talk about this in a way that doesn't prejudice or jeopardize any ensuing legal process, and still say something to the American people about this case?

"MS. PERINO: We've given it a lot of thought, to try to find out a way to sort of answer the mail on the requests that are coming in from not just the media, but also from the American people. However, the legal advice that we get from our Counsel's Office, and the request that we had from the parties in the case was that we not comment on it while there was an ongoing criminal matter."

At the very least, reporters should have asked what specifically the counsel's office was advising -- and should have pointed out that the "requests" from the parties in the case were now utterly irrelevant. But no dice.

"Q: Is this damaging to this White House, embarrassing for this White House?

"MS. PERINO: You know, I think that any administration that has to go through a prolonged news story that is unpleasant and one that is difficult for -- when you're under the constraints and the policy of not commenting on an ongoing criminal matter, that can be very frustrating. But I think that we have been able to continue on, moving forward on all sorts of different fronts while also being aware that this situation is out there. But, no, I wouldn't characterize it the way you did."

It's almost as if she wants people to feel sorry for them.

"Q: Dana, you said the President is saddened by this. Is he saddened by the fact that a former top advisor in this building is facing this personal problem? Or is he saddened by the fact that a former advisor is convicted of lying in a federal investigation?

"MS. PERINO: He was saddened for Scooter himself, personally, and for Scooter's family.

"Q: He's not saddened that his top advisor lied to -- was found guilty of lying to investigators?

"MS. PERINO: He's saddened for Scooter. We're not going to comment on the trial."

And finally Perino, responding to a question about Bush's avowed adherence to "the highest ethical standards," Perino offered this as an example: "I think the President has had a very principled and responsible stand to not comment on the ongoing criminal matter in any way, shape, or form, and that has been his position. It's been the -- it's a responsible one, it's a principled one, and that's what he's done."

So that's the new ethical gold standard for the White House: A principled refusal to comment on the conviction of a top aide?

Perino also refused to rule out a possible pardon: "I'm not commenting on a hypothetical situation. I think that that is the best way to respond to that. I think that there is a process in place for all Americans, if they want to receive a pardon from a President, be that any President that is in office, and I'm aware of no such request."

Here is the text of Cheney's official statement: "I am very disappointed with the verdict. I am saddened for Scooter and his family. As I have said before, Scooter has served our nation tirelessly and with great distinction through many years of public service.

"Since his legal team has announced that he is seeking a new trial and, if necessary, pursuing an appeal, I plan to have no further comment on the merits of this matter until these proceedings are concluded."

Fitzgerald Speaks

CNN has a partial transcript of Fitzgerald's comments on the courthouse steps yesterday:

"For us, as investigators and prosecutors, to take a case where a high-level official is telling a story that the basis of his information wasn't from government officials but came from a reporter, the reporter had told us that was not true, other officials had told us the information came from them, we could not walk away from that.

"And to me, it's inconceivable that any responsible prosecutor would walk away from the facts that we saw in December 2003 and say, 'There's nothing here; move along, folks.' . . .

"Any lie under oath is serious. Any prosecutor would tell you -- in my days in New York, in my current days in Chicago -- that we cannot tolerate perjury. The truth is what drives our judicial system. If people don't come forward and tell the truth, we have no hope of making the judicial system work.

If someone knowingly tells a lie under oath during any investigation, it's every prosecutor's duty to respond by investigating and proving that if you can. And so that's a serious matter in any case. It's obviously a serious matter in a case here where there's a national security investigation. . . .

"QUESTION: But in your summation, you said that there was a cloud over the vice president and there was a cloud over the White House. Do you think that cloud still remains after this verdict?

"FITZGERALD: What I'll say is this: I said what I said in court. I'm not going to add to it or subtract from it.

"What was said in court was a defense argument made that we put a cloud over the White House, as if, one, we were inventing something or, two, making something up, in order to convince the jury that they ought to convict.

"And I think in any case where you feel that someone's making an argument that you are inventing something or improperly casting a cloud on someone, you respond.

"And we responded fairly and honestly by saying there was a cloud there caused by -- not caused by us. And by Mr. Libby obstructing justice and lying about what happened, he had failed to remove the cloud.

"And sometimes when people tell the truth, clouds disappear. And sometimes they don't. But when you don't know what's happening, that's a problem. . . .

"QUESTION: Sir, is your investigation over now, now that this trial's over? Now that you have this verdict, is this investigation -- is your special counsel investigation over?

"FITZGERALD: I would say this: I do not expect to file any further charges. Basically, the investigation was inactive prior to the trial. I would not expect to see any further charges filed. We're all going back to our day jobs. . . .

"If information comes to light or new information comes to us that would warrant us taking some action, we'll, of course, do that. But I would not create the expectation that any of us will be doing further investigation at this point. We see the investigation as inactive. . . .

"QUESTION: Does Mr. Libby have an opportunity to get a downward departure in sentencing from you, if he provides additional information?

"FITZGERALD: We're not going to comment about anything. Mr. Libby is like any other defendant: If his counsel or he wish to pursue any options, they can contact us. But we're going to treat him like any other defendant and not commenting on that."

The Democratic Response

From Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "I welcome the jury's verdict. It's about time someone in the Bush Administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics. Lewis Libby has been convicted of perjury, but his trial revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney's role in this sordid affair. Now President Bush must pledge not to pardon Libby for his criminal conduct.'

From Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: "This trial provided a troubling picture of the inner workings of the Bush Administration. The testimony unmistakably revealed - at the highest levels of the Bush Administration - a callous disregard in handling sensitive national security information and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq."

From Joseph Wilson

Melissa Block spoke to Wilson on NPR:

"Q: We heard the comments of one of the jurors speaking after the verdict, saying that they were thinking, 'What are we doing with this guy? Where's Rove? Where are the other guys?' Do those comments resonate with you?

"A: Well, they do, and of course we have a civil suit that we filed so that we can question Mr. Rove, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Armitage and perhaps others about precisely what their involvement in this matter was. Now that this trial is over, the President of the United States and the Vice President should have no more reason not to share with the American people their roles in this. I would argue that as a start, the President and the Vice President ought to release transcripts of their meetings with Mr. Fitzgerald."

Flashback

Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan on September 29, 2003: "The President has set high standards, the highest of standards for people in his administration. He's made it very clear to people in his administration that he expects them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."

Bush on July 13, 2005: "I have instructed every member of my staff to fully cooperate in this investigation. I also will not prejudge the investigation based on media reports. We're in the midst of an ongoing investigation, and I will be more than happy to comment further once the investigation is completed."

McClellan's Revenge?

On CNN with Larry King last night, McClellan -- of all people -- added to the pressure on his successors:

"Like many of my colleagues at the White House, I'm obviously saddened for Scooter Libby and his family, but at the same time I think that this does change the equation a little bit with the American public. Once you have someone that was a member of the president's senior staff as well as the top guy to the vice president of the United States involved in criminal wrongdoing, then this changes the equation with the American people to some extent. For a long time, don't think this has been much of a story for the American people. It been more of an inside the beltway story. But now they are kind of looking at it saying, what's going on here? . . .

"And I think, Larry, it will be interesting to see if the White House can sustain not talking about this through the appeals process. They sustained it for this long, but . . . I would be advising the White House to get out there and find some way to talk about this in enough detail to answer some of questions that . . . are still hanging out there."

The Coverage

Here are Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times summaries of yesterday's events.

Here is a Washington Post fact-check on some key elements of the case.

The Analysis

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Shortly before he was inaugurated for his second term, President Bush was asked why no one was held responsible for the mistakes of the first. 'We had an accountability moment,' he replied, 'and that's called the 2004 elections.'

"Two years and a stinging midterm election later, Bush is having another accountability moment, but this one isn't working out as well. The conviction of former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby has coincided with a string of investigations into the mistreatment of injured soldiers and the purge of federal prosecutors, putting the operations of his administration into harsh relief."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Campaigning in 2000, George Bush promised he would swear on the Bible to restore honor and dignity to a sullied White House and give it 'one heck of a scrubbing.' The conviction of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby gave the White House a scrubbing -- but not the one Bush had in mind. . . .

"The verdict 'does great damage to the Bush administration,' said Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University. 'It undermines the president's pledge of ethical conduct. But the most serious consequence is that it will raise questions about Cheney's durability in office. It may be time for Cheney to submit his resignation.'"

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "As a political matter, Libby's trial had long ago ceased to be about one man's guilt or innocence. Witnesses made it plain that at least three other administration officials had joined Libby in leaking the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, including top Bush strategist Karl Rove and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (whom jurors dubbed 'Slick Willie'). Libby's conviction, and Collins's 'fall guy' remark, only increased the determination of congressional Democrats to spread the blame throughout the White House."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Deep into his second term, Mr. Bush faces an array of political and policy problems that seem to be growing by the day. His once-powerful standing with the public has been leached away by the war in Iraq. His party, dogged by corruption charges, has lost power on Capitol Hill, leaving him exposed to a Democratic opposition that is now armed with subpoena power and the energy that comes from a good shot at recapturing the White House in 2008. His domestic agenda is stalled, and his foreign policy is constrained."

Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times: "The verdict in the I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby trial was more than a judgment against one of the Bush administration's most senior aides: It was also seen as an indictment of the White House political operation he helped design and direct.

"And it undermined the administration's credibility at a time when the president is trying to build support for his Iraq war policy in the face of increasingly outspoken opposition from Democrats and deepening skepticism among voters....

"Though many outside Washington saw the long trial as a kind of political circus, the charges were some of the most serious to be prosecuted in Washington in many years. As a result, the conviction may turn out to be a more serious blow to the administration than many may have foreseen."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "If President Bush ever thought things couldn't get any worse, he might want to reconsider."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "People will soon forget the details of the Lewis 'Scooter' Libby case, if they knew them in the first place.

"Whether the vice president's former chief of staff gets 25 years in prison or even a presidential pardon after his conviction Tuesday for lying and obstructing justice is of little consequence to most Americans.

"What will endure is damning testimony that confirms the public's worst fears about the Bush administration's behavior during the lead-up to the war in Iraq and its truthfulness since then."

Writes Sandalow: "[T]he testimony showed that President Bush either was lying about the White House's role in outing a CIA officer at the center of the scandal or was kept in the dark by top aides who defied his orders to come forward. ...

"Bush has never reconciled his public statements demanding to know the identity of the leakers with evidence that showed they included some of his top aides. If Bush didn't already know their identity, his most trusted advisers were willfully defying his instructions."

All Eyes on Cheney

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post that when Fitzgerald first took the job, he "saw his mission as revealing the full chain of events behind the security breach involving Plame's work as an undercover CIA officer. . . .

"Fitzgerald would respond with great frustration in his summation at Libby's trial almost three years later, saying that Libby's lies had effectively prevented him from learning about all of Cheney's actions in the administration's campaign to undermine Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"More than he had previously, Fitzgerald made clear in those remarks that his search for the truth about Cheney was a key ambition in his probe and that his inability to get it was a key provocation for Libby's indictment. Although Cheney was the target, Fitzgerald's investigation could not reach him because of Libby's duplicity."

Smith writes that Fitzgerald's decision to indict Libby "may have stemmed from his pique at his inability to get to the truth about Cheney, who appeared in testimony and in White House documents disclosed to the jury as the man behind the screen, pulling the switches and levers in what one of Fitzgerald's aides described as an orchestrated 'political public relations' campaign to undermine Wilson.

"Cheney, Fitzgerald suggested, had both motive and opportunity to run the show: He was deeply angered, even preoccupied, by Wilson's claim that Cheney deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq's nuclear research. He was the first to tell Libby about Plame's job, and he scrawled a disparaging note about Plame's alleged responsibility for a CIA-sponsored 'junket' to Niger that her husband took.

"And finally, Cheney was convinced that if 'everything' about the Wilson trip was disclosed to reporters, Wilson's credibility would be in tatters."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In legal terms, the jury has spoken in the Libby case. In political terms, Dick Cheney is still awaiting a judgment.

"For weeks, Washington watched, mesmerized, as the trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr. cast Vice President Cheney, his former boss, in the role of puppeteer, pulling the strings in a covert public relations campaign to defend the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq and discredit a critic. . . .

"With Tuesday's verdict on Mr. Libby -- guilty on four of five counts, including perjury and obstruction of justice -- Mr. Cheney's critics, and even some of his supporters, said the vice president had been diminished. . . .

"'It was clear that what Scooter was doing in the Wilson case was at Dick's behest,' said Kenneth L. Adelman, a former Reagan administration official who has been close with both men but has broken with Mr. Cheney over the Iraq war."

Stolberg writes that "a friend of Mr. Cheney's, Vin Weber, a Republican former congressman, said the verdict had 'got to be heartbreaking for the vice president.' But Mr. Weber said he wished Mr. Cheney would explain himself.

"'I don't think he has to do a long apologia,' Mr. Weber said, 'but I think he should say something, just to pierce the boil a little bit.'"

Bob Schieffer talked with Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News last night.

Couric: "How badly does this reflect on Mr. Cheney, in your view?"

Schieffer: "Well, I think very badly, and it's hard to conclude otherwise. The prosecutor did not prove any underlying crime here, but he convinced this jury that Scooter Libby lied. Well, you have to ask, why would he lie? Clearly, because he did not want what was going on in his office, and the vice president's office, where he worked, to come out."

The Jury

Richard Willing writes in USA Today: "A question occupied the jurors in the trial of Lewis 'Scooter' Libby as they sat through 14 days of testimony and deliberated for 10 more days: Why is Libby the only person on trial?

"'There was a tremendous amount of sympathy for Mr. Libby on the jury. It was said a number of times: 'What are we doing with this guy here? Where's (White House adviser Karl) Rove? Where are these other guys?' ' juror Denis Collins said Tuesday.

"'I'm not saying we didn't think Mr. Libby was guilty of the things we found him guilty of. It seemed like he was, as (Libby attorney Theodore) Wells put it, he was the fall guy.'"

Here's a transcript of Collins's comments on the courthouse steps yesterday.

On Huffingtonpost.com, Collins Web-publishes a disjointed diary of his time as a juror.

When it finally came time for the first straw poll on one of the counts -- perjury: "We take a vote - 9 for conviction, 2 against."

From the holdouts:

"1. 'I just think he was confused. He had a lot on his plate.'

" 2. 'I just don't see why a man with that much intelligence and being a lawyer would lie? Why not go into the Grand Jury and say I didn't tell the truth?'

"We retire for the evening.

"The next morning we begin again. Revisit our charts. We do not ask the two holdouts to change their minds. We ask them instead to change ours. After 20 minutes we vote again.

"Unanimous for conviction. There is no celebration, just a communal sigh. We have four counts to go."

Pardon Watch

John D. McKinnon, Evan Perez and Gary Fields write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The conviction of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, threatened to spark a new political battle, with some conservatives pushing for a presidential pardon based on what they claim is prosecutorial excess. . . .

"Within hours of the verdict, the conservative National Review published an online editorial calling for a pardon and stating that the verdict 'conclusively proved only one thing: A White House aide became the target of a politicized prosecution set in motion by bureaucratic infighting and political cowardice.' The Wall Street Journal editorial page also called for a pardon.

"Other prominent Republicans also voiced support. 'I would be more than happy to lend my name to the effort for a pardon if it came down to that -- I think it would be justified,' said former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who has helped lead an effort to raise money for Mr. Libby's defense, including plans to host a new fund-raiser announced after yesterday's verdict. . . .

"Besides being a political risk for the president, a pardon could be a big headache for the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. But some Republicans predicted that the post-trial and appeals processes could drag on for some time, postponing any pardon of Mr. Libby by Mr. Bush until after the 2008 election. Mr. Libby's lawyers said yesterday they would seek a new trial, and pursue appeals if that fails."

The New York Post editorial board writes: "Free Scooter Libby."

And Al Kamen, The Washington Post's playful but plugged-in columnist, writes today like it's a foregone conclusion: "The verdict is in! Now it's time for the In the Loop Pardon Scooter Contest! Yes, simply pick the date that President Bush will pardon Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, who, according to federal sentencing guidelines, is looking at 18 months to three years in the slammer."

Editorial Watch

Washington's media elites have been against this case from the beginning, seeing Fitzgerald and Wilson as unwelcome interlopers threatening the cozy relationship between the city's top political journalists and their sources.

So perhaps today's Washington Post editorial shouldn't come as a surprise. And yet it does.

The Post's editorial grudgingly acknowledges that "Mr. Libby's conviction should send a message to this and future administrations about the dangers of attempting to block official investigations." But, making assertions that aren't supported by facts that have been reported by its own news operation and others, the editorial concludes that the guilty verdict is, of all things, a vindication of the White House and an indictment of the prosecutor.

"The trial has provided convincing evidence that there was no conspiracy to punish Mr. Wilson by leaking Ms. Plame's identity -- and no evidence that she was, in fact, covert," it says.

"It would have been sensible for Mr. Fitzgerald to end his investigation after learning about Mr. Armitage. Instead, like many Washington special prosecutors before him, he pressed on, pursuing every tangent in the case. In so doing he unnecessarily subjected numerous journalists to the ordeal of having to disclose confidential sources or face imprisonment."

Washington-based USA Today also expresses concern: "In one sense, Tuesday's verdict in the long, strange trial of Lewis 'Scooter' Libby is a measure of justice. . . . But it is also a measure of how utterly foolish Washington investigations can become."

Outside the Beltway, views are a little less contrarian.

The New York Times calls the verdict "a breath of fresh air to see someone in this administration, which specializes in secrecy, prevarication and evading blame, finally called to account."

The Los Angeles Times writes: "It may be less than satisfying to see the law finally catch up to the administration in the form of perjury convictions against the vice president's ex-chief of staff. For now, though, it will have to do."

The Boston Globe provides as good a summary of the case as I've seen, and concludes: "The jurors -- and the public -- know that the case is about an attempt by the vice president to discredit a former government official who had the audacity to challenge false statements about the war. Fitzgerald said the American people would know more about the 'cloud over the vice president' and 'the cloud over the White House' if Libby had provided straight answers. Now Cheney can lift that cloud by giving the public some straight answers of his own."

The Baltimore Sun writes: "Mr. Libby's crimes tell us that there was something he didn't want the FBI, or prosecutors, or a grand jury -- or the public -- to know. It's immaterial that the prosecutor in his case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has decided there are no criminal charges he can bring over the outing of Ms. Wilson itself. Mr. Libby was willing to commit a series of felonies rather than tell the truth about the goings-on inside Mr. Cheney's office."

The Philadelphia Inquirer writes: "President Bush got word of the verdict in the Oval Office, the same place that he had promised seven years ago to infuse with a new integrity. A spokeswoman said the president 'respected' the jury's decision.

"If the president truly does respect this verdict, he ought to be seeking resignations. Rove, the architect of his presidency, was neck-deep in the scheme to discredit Wilson. He, too, spoke to a columnist about Wilson's wife. (Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged being the first to disclose Plame's identity to a journalist.)

"And what of Cheney, whose bidding Libby clearly was doing?

"Libby is the only one headed for jail, but the verdict condemns higher government officials in absentia."

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Cartoon Humor

Ben Sargent, Ann Telnaes, Pat Oliphant, and Mike Luckovich on the verdict.

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