The counter influence operations safety brief

I was listening to a recent podcast of The Cognitive Crucible featuring Dr. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute where they were discussing the challenge of foreign influence operations in the smartphone era. Specifically, they were discussing the fact that our service members are active target audiences of foreign adversaries, and this manifests mostly online.

To date, there have not been a lot of great suggestions on how to combat this. The most common recommendation is some version of digital literacy traning with modules that would discuss things like foreign influence operations, source checking, and bias. This sounds good – and honestly, it might be one of the only things we can do – but if the only thing we do is add another annual yearly training, my gut tells me this will fail.

Off the cuff, one of the participants in the podcast brought up the standard formation speech, and how odd it must be for a commander to have to address his or her formation and warn about foreign influence operations that are targeting them through their smartphones. Put that way, it sounds kind of conspiratorial, but we know it’s real.

Which got me wondering: are commanders out there discussing this with their formations?

Certaintly these things are known and discussed in the special operations community, but what about the rest of the military?

I’ve never been a big fan of the weekend safety brief – as both the guy in the back standing ‘at ease’ and the guy up front doing the best he can. They can sometimes seem disingenuous, often just a list of the things that need to be discussed to ensure everyone was warned.

On the other hand, the formation speech is a powerful platform for a commander to make a claim and empahsize what is important. If done well, this can have a tremendous impact. I can think back on formation speeches from twenty years ago that have stuck with me. One of my Battalion Commander’s ended every speech with “Take care of your three feet of space,” a maxim that kind of wraps up everything in eight words. Frequency, by the way, is an important tool in getting your point across. Say it, say it again, and keep saying it – the more mediums, the better.

Discussing a list of all the ways a soldier can hurt themselves or get in trouble will likely be ignored.

But what if instead of that list, a commander just spoke about foreign influence operations for a few minutes? Would that have an effect?

I don’t think it would change much, but I’ve also been repeatedly surprised by the things that I assume everyone in a formation knows, only to later learn they only just learned it after myself or someone else informed them in some innocuous way.

And at the very least, it would be informative. The military faces a litany of challenges every day, both internal and external. Foreign influence operations are one of them. We don’t have all of the solutions (and likely won’t ever have all the solutions), but just like everything in the militay, commanders play a key role. The way that a commander communicates about this specific challenge could have an impact.

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Reflection, the “basics,” and role modeling as mentorship: General Votel on FtGN podcast

My podcast diet is out of control. There’s so much good content and I add new podcasts to my “up next” list daily and mostly never get to them.

I have not listened to From the Green Notebook’s podcast until this morning. I’m a fan of General (Ret.) Votel, though, and when I saw that he was the interviewee for episode 1/season 2 of their podcast, I decided to give it a shot.

Great podcast with lots of insight! I like the duo approach to the interview and especially appreciated Joe’s questions – most of which bypassed thoughts on grand strategy or comments on current operations, but instead focused on “how” a leader like General Votel manages himself.

Those types of questions are often avoided when senior military leaders are interviewed.

I’ve captured some of the excerpts that resonated with me below.

On the importance of setting aside time for reflection:

Joe: “You alluded to this idea of reflection. Your career was extremely fast-paced… you took a lot of challenging assignments. And so, I was just curious, did you have time to reflect on your career? If so, did that play a role at all?

Gen. Votel: “I did, and I think you’re raising a really great question…. and that is taking time to think through things. I think it’s a really important opportunity just to be able to — I used to call it the opportunity to have a discussion without the burden of having to make a decision.”

They go on to talk about the importance of conversation and deep-dives as reflection.

This struck me, because I think when people hear the term “reflection” or building time to reflect – especially in a senior leader context, they envision the leader sitting along in his or her office, staring out the window and pondering the great questions of life.

I don’t know anyone who does that. Hearing General Votel couch reflection as a process of conversation, however, resonated with me. I know that I do my best reflection when I’m engaged in some other activity – exercise, free-wheeling conversation, or just watching a movie or playing a video game. Thoughts come to me and being away from the problem – whatever it is – provides the space for that reflection.

Discussing the similarities and differences of serving as the Commander of JSOC/SOCOM/CENTCOM:

“When it comes to leadership, the basics matter.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

This is so true.

Earlier in my career, a General officer I worked for was adamant that everything you need to know about serving in the Army you learn in your first three years – from there it’s just refinement. I believe that. Yes, there are skills that you pick up along the way that take time – but the things that matter – those basics – you learn them early. If you can learn them, reinforce them, and grow, that’s how you get really good.

Another great question from Joe:

“Sir, you mentioned when you were talking about your emotions, you talked about shock…. and as leaders, we don’t always get the news that we thought we were going to get, and we still have to lead through that. Thinking back on those days in December [Syria withdrawal decision], was there anything that you did inparticular, like go in an office and shut the door, or sit down and write something down in your notebook to collect your thoughts? You had to quickly get over that shock to lead throught it.”

Joe Byerly (emphasis mine)

I love that question. “What did you actually do?” Not in terms of the decision you made or grand plan that unfurled, but as a human, what did you do in response to that? We’re all human after all – even combatant commanders.

On role modeling (and observation) as mentorship:

“I have a tendency to think about mentorship not so much as just ‘mentorship,’ but I have a tendency to think of it as role modeling – ‘role modeling-ship’ for example. To me, that has been the most influential thing in my military career – is watching how other people have handled things and internalizing that.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

General Votel goes on to discuss how observing can teach you what to do and what not to do. True.

Towards the end (about 34:00 minute mark), Joe raises a great question about books or “scenes” that stick with you as a way to think about the military profession – especially as it relates to going to war. He goes on to talk about a scene from the book Gates of Fire that symbolizes leaving the family man behind as you go off to war and only bringing the military man – the one who can “kill another human being.”

It’s a great frame for a question, and it reminded me of these old CTG posts (going to the “dark place” and “why we fight.”)

And now I’m a subscriber!

You can listen to the podcast here and subscribe there as well.

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Strategic Guidance at the Tactical Level

Originally published in 2015.

Sometimes, the things that I read about online that seem to be important to the Army or the military are very different from the things that seem to be important at the platoon level.

The other night I was reading something online – probably from the Army Times or Stars and Stripes – about some initiative or plan that the Secretary of the Army was talking about. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember thinking that it would be very unlikely that I would ever hear about it again.

This guidance was unlikely to make its way down the chain of command and to me through any official channels.

Every now and then I’ll be poking around online and click on a link that takes me to a “message to the force” from someone at the Army strategic level, and I’ll think about how odd it is that I found it on my own, and not in some more “official” way. I discovered a message to myself by accident.

My question: how is a junior leader supposed to respond to something like this? Is it the junior leader’s responsibility to carry out the initiatives of the SECDEF or SECARMY or CSA if he simply reads about it online, on accident?

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An unrelenting desire to accomplish the mission

Isaac appears at the 1:30 mark.

I recently finished The Last of Us Part 2. It took me a half a year due to time constraints (moving, new job/routine). I probably would have written more about it as I did with part 1, but I didn’t relaunch CTG until October and wasn’t in the writing groove yet.

Anyway, while playing the game, I grew fascinated with the character “Isaac.” He is the commander of the “Washington Liberation Front” and a former Marine. I’m not going to get into the story, but you can watch the video above. He only appears in two cutscenes, although he is discussed at length in dialogue throughout the game. The scene above is the first of the two scenes, and the inspiration for this post.

What interests me about Isaac is his seeming resignation to his fate and the impossibility of his situation. It’s hard to tell, but he seems reluctant about everything he is doing. He is in command, but nothing he is doing is working. Truces, assaults, – they all fail. Yet he persists.

You initially find him seemingly torturing a captive for information. But Isaac himself seems tired of it.

“Don’t let him fall asleep.”

In the conversation with Abby, Isaac speaks with exhaustion, shoulders slouched. He has a plan and a way forward – he sees a path to victory – but he needs everyone on board. And everyone (Abby included) has their own personal issues that they need to take care of. Isaac knows his soldiers and knows he needs Abby to accomplish his mission. This is when he shows a little empathy to her and also appeals to her sense of duty to the team. 

“We need you.”

Just enough to get what he needs and keep the machine running.

That exhaustion and resignation coupled with an unrelenting dedication to accomplishing the mission strikes me because it’s something I’ve seen before. Commanders, good men and women, placed in impossible positions of leadership, trying to move heaven and earth to meet an objective. It’s a position that grinds you down and can make you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do – because of the mission.

I can’t tell, but the vibe I got from experiencing the game the first time was that Isaac was probably a good person. Before the outbreak, I imagine he was a good man. But this situation tore him down.

No grand discoveries here. Just an observation.

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Admiral Anderson on military life, intuition, and the calamity of leadership

Originally published in 2013.

I jumped back into Mass Effect today to play the Citadel DLC and was inspired by some of the things in this interview between a journalist and Admiral David Anderson. I’ve pulled out the parts I found the most interesting.

Whoever wrote this is spot on. For all of the military training we have, things often come down to instincts. Thousands of years of warfare there for us to study, to inform our training, but instinct is still the thing that sits there at the unforgiving minute, the last hundred yards.

And isn’t that the truth concerning the terrible burden of leadership? How horrible is it that we ask our military leaders to choose the mission over the men, and to carry that cross for the rest of their lives?

But then, is war not terrible? I love how Admiral Anderson makes that final statement. To me, it is a critique on war, and a warning to avoid it at all costs, because there truly are no winners, just better-off losers.

Journalist: Does the program make the man, or do you think you were born for this?

It is a bit of both I suppose. Every soldier reaches a point in their career, sometimes more than once, when they are asked to give more than they ever thought they could. That moment is the test. I’ve seen men and women almost sure to fail, persevere long past the point of breaking. That experience changes them. Others, with all the gifts and abilities, fail in that moment. Sometimes they pick themselves up and carry on, sometimes, they’re just done.

JournalistDo you trust your intuition? Do you follow your heart or your mind?

No, I suppose if I were to be honest, I do trust my instincts. The problem is… war isn’t orderly. And the enemy is never predictable. Even the most experienced veteran is going to find themselves in situations they haven’t trained for. In those instances – and there is more than I’d like to admit – your instincts are the only thing keeping you alive. That, and the men and women you’re fighting aside.

Journalist: But soldiers are only as good as their leader, isn’t that true?

Yeah, a good leader can make an ‘ok’ squad great. And a bad leader, well, war tends to make examples of them.

Journalist: What makes a good leader then?

Hm… a good leader is someone who values the life of his men over the success of the mission, but understands that sometimes, the cost of failing a mission is higher than the cost of losing those men.

JournalistThat’s a terrible line to have to walk.

Yes it is. But war is a terrible thing.

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On Morale

EIB

Originally published in 2015, and still true.

Every year or so, an article appears sounding the alarm over morale in the military. This piece from World Affairs Journal is no different, analzying recent data and polling on the state of military morale.

I made a note to write about it, because it seemed alarmist and disingenuous.

Reading through the text, there isn’t a lot of hard evidence that indicates morale is actually low. Most of the data comes from informal polls that don’t directly correspond to “morale” but instead touch on things like pay and job satisfaction.

Morale, as an idea, should to be defined before it can be analyzed.

morale |məˈral|
noun
the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time: their morale was high.

That’s a book definition, and it seems ok for a start. But I’ve been unable to find an agreed upon military definition of morale, which seems odd, since it is always touted as a chief concern. With no firm definition of morale, it’s hard to say if it is high or low.

This Stars & Stripes article from October 2003 (a time where I can personally attest to as a period of low morale) unpacks the discussion of morale and trying to define it. All soldiers know it’s important, but not everyone can agree on what it is, only, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

Of course, there are the three pillars of morale: chow, mail, and pay. Mess with any of those and morale will sink. For today’s troops, I’d add in free time and connectivity, to a lesser degree. These are elements of “big tent” morale. These are things that depend on acts of Congress and the Department of Defense to deliver.

Polling as a means of measuring “big tent” morale is ineffective. Soldiers, since time immemorial, always gripe, no matter how good or bad the situation.

Instead of polling, recruiting and retention numbers serve as a better measure of “big tent” morale.

At a time when the military as a whole is downsizing, benefits are becoming scarcer, and the operational tempo remains high – despite the wars “being over” – recruiting and retention numbers remain at one-hundred percent and above in a recovering economy. That is, there isn’t a rush to the exit. Servicemen and women continue to join and stay in the service.

Anecdotally, the grass is always greener on the other side. Troops today talk about wanting to deploy more, like we did in the mid-2000s. There’s also a post-COIN running discontent with trying to accomplish a myriad of seemingly distracting tasks while being told to always find and exploit opportunities to train.

Even some of the guys who served back then talk about those days with a tinge of nostalgia.

It’s easy to forget how tough those times were. Friends were being killed, deployments lasted 15 (+) months, and the military enacted policies like “stop-loss” and Individual-Ready Reserve (IRR) call-ups to make numbers.

When the military has go to the small print in enlistment contracts to make numbers, that’s a sign of overall low morale.

Just like the APFT is simply a benchmark of physical fitness, recruiting and retention numbers only provide a snapshot of overall morale.

Still, individual units can have high morale when morale across the force is low, even (or, especially) down to the squad level. Plenty of units had high morale during the mid-2000s when things were tough. This morale is different from the “big tent” morale discussed earlier. This is the morale that comes from small-unit cohesion. The biggest factor in this is, of course, leadership. A good leader who can filter out the nonsense while still accomplishing the mission can (mostly) insulate his or her element from low morale. This is why you’ll often hear soldiers talking about how great “their last unit” was. What they’re really saying is that they liked it better with their previous leadership.

This type of morale might be better measured through polling, but not in the aggregrate. This morale is better measured through small unit sensing sessions, informal discussions, and listening to the remarks from soldiers as you pass them by – the things they say in your presence, just to see how you respond.

On the other hand, simple measures of low morale and discontent would be desertion rates and “fragging” incidents. Although there may be others, these two in high number, or beyond the infrequent lone episodes would be a good indicator that there is a true morale issue in the force.

Interestingly, new Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey is looking at troop morale through the prism of small, common sense changes that can be made, to include allowing headphones to be worn in fitness centers while wearing the phsyical fitness uniform (a source of much emotional heartache for this author). While small things like headphones and socks might seem inconsequential to troop morale, these micro-policies can have a significant effects over time.

There are so many other places the morale discussion can go. Discipline and punishment in a unit has an effect on morale. A soldier who goes unpunished for an infraction only to see another soldier who commited the same infraction receive an Article 15 can be a blow to overall morale, as it reeks of favoritism and selective enforcement.

Admittedly, I didn’t do a ton of research for this post. I’d be curious to know if an actual military definition of morale exists (it doesn’t in Operational Terms and Graphics). It’s also an interesting discussion to have, even in terms of our allies. The Iraqi Army, as a whole, likely suffers from low morale, as indicated by the high rate of desertion in the face of the enemy. Individual units, though, like the elite Counter Terrorism Service, seem to have higher morale. What is the cause? Leadership? Pay? Equipment? Sense of purpose? Skull maks?

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Leadership through Group Text

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

One of the first things I noticed upon re-joining the Army a few years ago, besides the proliferation of hand sanitizer, was how widespread smartphone use had become. For good or for ill, they are here. The ire of Commanders and NCOs everywhere is soldiers sitting around the company area, drumming away on their smartphones.

And like other industries, the fact that virtually everyone has a cell phone means that there is an expectation that you can be contacted at just about any time. Add to this the fact that in the Army “you’re a soldier 24 hours a day,” and there is now a built in expectation to be completely reachable through the marriage of duty and technology.

There is so much that can be written about smartphones, connectivity, and the expectations therein as they relate to the military, but I wanted to address the prevalence of the group text message as a means of putting out information.

In the pre-smartphone era, vital information would either be put out in a meeting and subsequently disseminated or there would be a final formation that would set the conditions for the next day. If a leader wanted to make changes to the plan after that time, it would have to be done through a phone chain, which was tedious and painful. Therefore, leaders were generally less likely to change things on the fly because of a late night good idea.

Today, you can check your weather app, see it’s going to be colder than you thought tomorrow and just send a group text out at 2045 and expect everyone to be wearing full winter PTs the next morning.

“I didn’t get the text.”

Leaders used to be extra sure everyone understood the expectations for the next day, which forced a deliberate thought process that allowed for contingencies. Now, the fact that we have the ability to instantaneously broadcast orders and intent allows us more flexibility – which is a good thing, kind of. We don’t have to go through that deliberate thought process – which frees us up to do other things, whatever those things may be.

The power to send group texts makes the rapid dissemination of information possible, where a face-to-face meeting was once required.

So it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Didn’t you get my text?”

Simply sending a group text message, though, does not guarentee the message was received. We’re still figuring it out, and etiquette and norms have yet to be developed. To me, it seems a good general rule to send an acknowledgement that you have read, digested, and will comply with a message, whether it comes over the radio, email, or group text.

The fact that the smartphone occupies the same space that look at memes and play games as well as put out “mission-type orders” makes the medium feel not as serious. This is why you might get a message like “where r u” from an NCO at a random time, and wonder what the hell is going on.

Smartphones aren’t going away, so it’s a matter of finding ways to better use them in a way that makes sense. But if you’ve ever had to suffer through an Army group text argument, usually late at night, on a weekend, likely fueled by alcohol, then you will question whether they are truly worth it.

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Leadership: Be Ready on Day One

Originally published in 2015, but still true.

One of the hardest parts about assuming a leadership position in the military is realizing that no one is waiting for you, and really, no one cares. To you, it feels like things have been building towards that moment, and really, they have.

For you.

Training, self-development, “rowing,”: finally getting to step in front of soldiers is the end of a long process of getting there.

For you.

For them, things have been going for a long time. They’re really not that interested in how big a deal this is for you, other than wondering whether things will get better (if they’re bad) or if things will get worse (if they’re good).

On top of that, it’s likely that you, as the smart new leader, already have a plan for how you’re going to lead. Maybe the plan is to show up and assert dominance through a gut-checking speed run. Or maybe you plan on staying silent and in the background, quietly observing how things run before making any significant changes.

Likely, no matter the plan, there’s this feeling that this is the beginning, a fresh start.

For you.

For them, it’s just another day. They might be worn out, just coming off of a deployment or an NTC rotation. They might have been sucking on red cycle, doing laborious details for months. Or they might be relatively fresh, having just come off of leave.

Either way, it’s not a brand new start. There’s a vibe that courses through the unit that is informed by the recent and not-so-recent past, significant events, personalities, ass-chewings, and loads of other inputs that you are likely completely unaware of.

Even knowing that, which you do because you’re a smart new leader, it will still feel like the beginning. You’ll get there and begin executing your plan.

In the combat arms, this would ideally look like a settling in period where you gauge the unit and get to know people, followed by a train up period where you slowly get them where you want them to be, and then the unit “peaks” just at the same time as you get on the plane for a combat deployment. You go on the deployment, win the war, and then come back home, go on leave, and transition out. Very neat, very perfect.

As it happens, the universe is conspiring against you, and something will invariably get in the way of the grand plan. It could be your commander, a subordinate, a family member, a death, a suicide, infidelity, a no-notice deployment – the lists goes on.

The point is, you have to be ready to be the man on day one. The hardest decision you make during your time as leader might be in the first month, or week, or day. It can be terribly infuriating to have something interfere with the plan – YOUR plan.

But without question, something will absolutely get in the way of the things you want to do and accomplish. It’s just a matter of when. And like I said, there is a pulse that runs through the unit that has been there long before you and it continues to beat, even as you sit in the commander’s chair plotting the grand scheme. The only variable is when the big event will happen. Will the decisive point be right where you want it, when your feet are firmly planted and you fully understand what you’re dealing with. Or will it be when you first arrive and have no idea what the hell is going on, knocking you off of your feet?

You don’t really get much of a say. But you have a responsibility to be ready and own it, whatever it is and whenever it may come.

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Post Platoon Leader Series: Buy the unit coffee mug

Unit Coffee Mug

This post is part of a series that attempts to add something to the “platoon leader advice” category beyond the typical “be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine” variety. The intent is to provide more specific (and obscure) advice.

An interesting aspect about military culture is the zeal commanders have for their current unit. While it’s always a little tongue-in-cheek (because how can it be possible for each successive unit to be the BEST they’ve ever served in), when done well, it really is internalized. You can tell when a leader really loves their unit and is giving it their all. That leader wants their subordinate leaders to share that same enthusiasm.

Which is why you should buy your unit coffee mug.

One of the first things I did upon arriving to my last unit was visit our museum (which is good advice in its own right). At the gift shop, I bought a stainless steel coffee mug. pictured above and on the right, nestled gently into a space in my MRAP during a mission in Afghanistan in 2014.

From day one in the unit, I had that coffee mug, emblazoned with our unit logo. It went with me to the field, to the National Training Center, to Afghanistan, to Dallas-Fort Worth for funeral honors, and I still drink out of it every day.

On multiple occasions, officers and NCOs would ask me where I got the mug. They liked it, and were always surprised that it was sold at our very own gift shop.

Besides the fact that carrying a coffee mug is good Army practice ( if the Army is there, coffee is too), choosing to identify further with your unit beyond what is required sends a signal to your soldiers, peers, and leaders that you support the unit. Simply buying the mug doesn’t necessarily “do” anything – you can buy all the unit swag available and be a terrible leader.

But, buying the unit coffee mug is a very simple way of displaying that “you’re in.”

You have to drink your coffee somehow, you might as well do it with a purpose.

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Post Platoon Leader Series: The Psychological Impact of the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant Working as One

www_usma_edu_caldol_siteassets_armymagazine_docs_2012_CC_ARMY__May2012__PL-PSG_pdf

This post is part of a series that attempts to add something to the “platoon leader advice” category beyond the typical “be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine” variety. The intent is to provide more specific (and obscure) advice.

This might seem like common sense, but I’ve seen the opposite of it so often that I thought it worth sharing.

At just about every echelon of command, the Army pairs officers with a non-commissioned officer counterpart. It’s a brilliant system that favors the officer, because he or she is normally paired with a much more experienced non-commissioned officer. I’ve generally seen company command teams (CO and 1SG) and echelons above “get” how important it is for the command team to be on the same page.

At the platoon level, not so much.

When the platoon leader and the platoon sergeant act as one and are in agreement on how to run the platoon, the platoon responds. I have no evidence to back this up other than anecdotal, but there is a psychological effect of the senior non-commissioned officer and the platoon leader actually being in the same place at the same time and in agreement.

I know this to be true mostly because I have seen the effects of the inverse, as both an enlisted infantryman and as an officer. It is clear to everyone in the platoon when the platoon leader and platoon sergeant are not in agreement on an issue.

When this happens, Squad Leaders will tell their guys “Mommy and Daddy are fighting again.”

As an enlisted infantryman, I remember having a very strong platoon leader and a very strong platoon sergeant who both thought they knew exactly how to best run the platoon, and although they were both great infantrymen, their approaches were wildly different. This resulted in very vocal and very public fighting, which could get awkward in the platoon office in garrison or a patrol base in the field (or a hide site in Iraq).

As an officer, I saw other platoon leaders who were adamant that it was “their” platoon and made that point known a little too often to their platoon sergeants. As an aside, I’ve always been of the mind that it’s not the platoon leader’s platoon; he or she just signs the hand receipt.

Before my platoon sergeant and I ever did anything in front of the platoon, we’d talk privately to make sure we were in agreement on what we wanted to do or communicate. Once we understood each other, we’d get out there and do it.

As a piece of advice to new or would-be platoon leaders, I would suggest building a strong relationship with your platoon sergeant, establish the same goals, and to the greatest degree possible, never disagree with one another in front of the platoon.

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