The chief suspect in an Atlanta murder is an employee of a hostile embassy, a man responsible for monitoring secret communications. He's also a spy, recruited by the FBI, and now he's on the run. The pressure is on for the Bureau to bring him in before his own side take him out.
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True Spies Episode 76: The Code Clerk

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: As a young counter-intel agent, I'm thinking: "This is for real. This is not a movie. This is not a Tom Clancy novel.” We're talking about intel indicating that a foreign adversary has put boots on the ground in America to find one of our assets. And it is literally now a race between the FBI and this hit team to find this code clerk.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 76: The Code Clerk. How much do you know about foreign embassies, those mysterious in-between worlds, where international intel is passed from hand to hand on a daily basis? If you had to pick just one figure, inside an embassy, to unlock the secrets within, who would you choose?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: When most people are asked to weigh in on who they might think would be the ultimate target for FBI or CIA recruitment inside a foreign diplomatic establishment, many people will say: "Well, I would guess you'd want the head of that diplomatic establishment, the foreign ambassador, right?”

NARRATOR: Sure, that makes sense. An ambassador running an outpost of a hostile nation would make a wonderful catch for any spy handler, although there are other prizes to be won within the embassy’s closely guarded walls.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: You’d certainly like to get the head of the intelligence unit, the head spy inside that embassy.

NARRATOR: Likewise, military attachés, brimming with national security secrets. All of them could prove extremely valuable assets in the international chess game of espionage and counterintelligence.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: But they all have their limits in terms of access that they have in the course of their day. But there's one person inside a diplomatic establishment that - at least when I was working for 25 years in the business - was the ultimate objective.

NARRATOR: Not the ambassador. Not the head spy. Not the military attaché. The most valued catch in a foreign embassy?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: That is the code clerk.

NARRATOR: You’d be forgiven for never before considering the code clerk. After all, spy movies rarely bother rendering these quiet, unassuming characters found tapping away at computer terminals in embassies the world over. But make no mistake: a code clerk is a worker bee worth getting to know.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: That is the person who gets to see and have access to all the communications, all the encrypted, classified, sensitive comms that come in and out of that embassy or consulate every single day. They're encoded. They’re encrypted. They have to be decrypted, to be read on the other side, but that person, that comms person that sees all and can know all, that's your ultimate goal for a recruitment in place, someone who's willing to work for you while they work for them.

NARRATOR: In this episode of True Spies, you’ll find out just how far an intelligence agency will go to protect an asset like that, and the extraordinary risks an adversary will take to neutralize them. Your guide, through this lesser-known corridor in the labyrinth of international espionage?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I'm Frank Figliuzzi. I'm the former and retired FBI assistant director for counterintelligence.

NARRATOR: If anyone should know about this world, it’s him.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I was often called, at least in the media, the nation's chief spycatcher, because the FBI is that primary counterintelligence agency in the government by executive order of the president.

NARRATOR: During his tenure as the nation’s chief spycatcher, Frank Figliuzzi came to understand a great deal about the secret systems at play all around us.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I'm very comfortable saying that the vast majority of what crosses the desk of a counterintelligence agent, and certainly as the assistant director of counterintelligence, is indeed classified. And in fact, on my desk, probably on a daily basis, there were the red files, the files that were classified as top secret or compartmented top secret. And so it's gravely serious business, and that does constrain my ability to attach details to descriptions of the work. 

NARRATOR: For that reason, Figliuzzi will have to stay vague on the specifics surrounding one pivotal case from his career. He cannot tell you certain names, countries, or any other details that might compromise this still-classified case. But what he can do is provide the outline of an investigation that rattled his very conceptions of security, jurisdiction, and interference. A case that proved formative in his understanding of this entire hidden world.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I think the eye-opener for me on how very real the threat is from foreign intelligence services, terrorist organizations, and adversarial governments, happened really early in my career. I was perhaps [working] two to three years at best, maybe. This is Atlanta, my first field office. I get called into my squad supervisor's office and he says: "Frank, Buck Revell is on the phone for you."

NARRATOR: That name may not mean much to you, but it certainly did to the young special agent.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Everyone in the Bureau knew who Buck Revell was. He was, at that time, one of the three executives we called the ‘Holy Trinity’, and Buck Revell was an executive assistant director. There were three of them operationally at the top of the FBI and he had responsibility for all investigations.

NARRATOR: To say this call came as a surprise would be something of an understatement.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: The notion that an executive assistant director in charge of all operations for the FBI would be calling Atlanta and asking to speak with an agent with about two years in, I thought was a joke.

NARRATOR: But Figliuzzi’s supervisor wasn’t laughing.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: My supervisor said: "No, I'm not kidding. You need to call them at this number on the secure phone.” And he shrugged his shoulders like: "I have no idea what this is.”

NARRATOR: The only clue Frank did have had landed on his desk a few minutes earlier.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I had just been handed what, back then, we called a teletype, from Washington that said: “Uou need to liaison with one of the local police departments in a suburb of Atlanta and find out more details about this murder investigation.”

NARRATOR: But hang on a minute... Frank was in counterintelligence and counterterrorism - so why was a local murder lurking in his in-tray?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I thought that was odd because, again, I'm on a national security squad that doesn't routinely work homicides, but I was about to start that liaison process with that police department. 

NARRATOR: Instead, Figliuzzi found himself dialing the secure line of one the FBI’s Holy Trinity. His day was about to get a hell of a lot odder.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I'm now on the phone talking to an executive assistant director who tells me, very matter of factly, that he believes that an act of terrorism may just have occurred on US soil.

NARRATOR: As a special agent of the FBI, there are all manner of eventualities that your training will prepare you for. And then there’s this: a potential act of terrorism in your own backyard. No amount of training can prepare you for the impact of those words. With no time to spare, Executive Assistant Director Buck Revell brought him up to speed.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: ​​So, here's how this played out: The suburban police department had found a woman in an apartment, lying on her back, covered with a blanket, a note in a foreign language pinned to the blanket on her chest. And this is where things get interesting. A business card of an FBI agent out of a major city in America was found within the apartment.

NARRATOR: Revell instructed Figliuzzi to make contact with that agent immediately for a full briefing on the threat at hand. With the executive assistant director’s words ringing in his ears, he hung up the phone and placed his next call to the special agent whose business card had been found at the scene.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: And he explained that this was not a happy day for him. He explained that this deceased woman that was found in an apartment in Atlanta was the wife of a code clerk. And that he had been recruited to work for the FBI.

NARRATOR: In other words, Figliuzzi’s colleague in the other office had landed the ultimate counterintelligence catch: he’d turned a code clerk. Suddenly, Revell’s urgency was beginning to make sense.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I realized now what the executive assistant director had been worried about, which was the very real concern that this code clerk’s nation, this code clerk’s intel service, had discovered that he was a traitor to them and was working for us. And that maybe a team, a hit team even, had come into our country, killed his wife, and maybe had killed him. Because the next question I asked this agent on the phone was: "Where the hell is the code clerk?” And the answer was: "We don't know.”

NARRATOR: Before we follow Frank down the rabbit hole into a world of treachery and treason, it’s important that you know what kind of man he is, what kind of agent. Some special agents-to-be take long, circuitous routes to their destiny. Others are on a clear pathway from the start. It’s fair to say that Figliuzzi belongs firmly in the latter camp.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: There was a sense in our household that there are forces for good in the world. And there are forces for evil in the world. And a kid tends to see things as black and white, but I wanted to be on that team with the good guys and particularly the good guys who were using their brains to solve crimes.

NARRATOR: In fact, Frank was so adamant about his future career, he kick-started his recruitment process at the age of 11.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I had no idea how competitive the FBI special agent application process was. I was just a kid who had seen some pretty neat stuff on TV shows and read in the newspapers that the FBI was dismantling organized crime families nearby in New York City, near Connecticut. And I thought these guys were pretty cool and I wanted to be a part of that. And so I wrote off a letter to the head of the FBI at the local field office. And he wrote back. And he signed it and he said: "Here's what you got to do… Give us a call in 15 years or so."

NARRATOR: Cut to 15 years or so later, and that’s precisely what Figliuzzi, the young college graduate, did.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I knew that law and accounting were two of the major skill sets needed in the Bureau at that time. And so I said: "Well, yeah, I'm not going to be an accountant and so I'm going to go to law school.” And I did, and I was given the chance to be an honors intern for a summer at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC. 

NARRATOR: That summer only reinforced his desire to become a special agent.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I thought walking into FBI headquarters with those flags flying overhead every day was one of the neatest things I had ever done and I wanted to be a part of it. As I applied for jobs my last year of law school, I got offered prosecutor jobs in district attorneys offices, some really excellent offices, but they said: "Look, here's how this works: A new lawyer is going to spend time in the law library, writing briefs and motions. We probably won't let you see a felony trial in front of a jury for a year or two." And the FBI said, well: "We give you a gun, a badge, and a caseload of your own to solve on day one."

NARRATOR: For a young man itching to make a difference in the real world, it was an easy choice.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Particularly if you've spent the last three years in a law library getting through law school, the appeal of life on the street, surveillance, playing head games with either bad guys, organized crime figures or spies, certainly had that appeal to me. And that's what I ultimately ended up doing.

NARRATOR: Over the course of a 25-year climb to the upper rungs of the FBI ladder, Frank came into contact with an astonishing array of departments and investigations.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: In my career, I touched or even led cases that were on the front page of newspapers around the world. I became the on-scene commander for the first Anthrax murder in the history of the United States at Boca Raton, Florida. I touched a piece of the Unabomber case. I worked a serial bombing case in the Deep South that killed a federal judge. I've led FBI support in Ohio for serial killing cases - nine bodies of women found in this guy's house. It's those kinds of things that you look back on and say: "it's almost surreal that you were a part of that."

NARRATOR: In case you can’t tell, Frank is a man who takes a certain degree of pride in his work. And, while he worked many different beats before becoming assistant director, he always viewed counter-intel as his spiritual home within the Bureau.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I was assigned to the counterintelligence and counterterrorism squad in Atlanta, right off the bat, and I ate it up.

NARRATOR: For an idealistic young special agent, you could scarcely imagine a more exciting assignment. 

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Counterintel is never just about the local problem. It's about the global threat and risk posed by our adversaries who want to get out of bed every day and try to hurt the United States, our democracy. So, for a young person like me who was looking for this fight against the bad forces in the world, this was literally that.

NARRATOR: And that promise Frank’s FBI recruiter had made - about being handed a badge, a gun, and a mountain of exciting cases from day one - that turned out to be truer than he could have possibly realized. Quickly, he familiarized himself with the tradecraft of this strange, backhanded game. In fact, he excelled at it. So - before we go any further - how exactly does one catch a spy?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Counterintelligence agents refer to the three Ds: detect, deter, and defeat. So their job in three simple concepts is to detect where the spies are - the intelligence collectors, cooperators, co-optees, cutouts - and deter their operations. And, quite frankly, that means really making it tough for them to even get any of their job done on a daily basis here. And then, lastly, the ultimate, to defeat efforts through some form of neutralization.

NARRATOR: Now there’s a word with an ominous ring to it. Yet neutralization can take many forms.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: A lot of people think that means handcuffs at the end of the day. But I like to point out that if you're handcuffing, you're often reflecting a failure because what you haven't done is the ultimate objective, which is to recruit that person, get every piece of information you can out of him or her even while they're still operating in place inside their government. 

NARRATOR: It’s that context, that objective, that provided the backdrop for one of the most exciting and consequential cases of Frank Figliuzzi’s career. Let’s go back to the beginning. We’d left the story at a critical juncture. An adversary nation’s code clerk, turned by the FBI, is missing on US soil. His wife is dead and it looks like murder. This was an investigation that had already sent shockwaves rippling through to the very highest tiers of the Bureau and now the rookie agent, Frank Figliuzzi, found himself right at its heart. He had no time to waste. 

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I needed to get to that local police department to talk to the homicide detectives, take a look at what they had found at the crime scene and what that looked like.

NARRATOR: But to do that, he’d have to win the cooperation of the local police department, which is no mean feat for a fresh-faced kid just a couple of years out of college.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Imagine this scene. I'm in a homicide squad in a major suburban Atlanta police department. I’m sitting at a conference table, surrounded by grizzled, seasoned homicide detectives. They're staring at me. They've got a dead body on their hands. Here comes this national security FBI agent asking questions about their murder scene.

NARRATOR: And he couldn’t even be transparent about the stakes at play.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: One of the first things I did was apologize for the lack of detail I was going to be able to provide them because I explained this was classified. The relationship between that business card and this woman and this woman's husband was classified. But I did share with them that we were very, very urgently seeking this woman's husband. And I said, we should probably treat her husband who is missing as a suspect.

NARRATOR: It was certainly an easier working theory to press on the local police department than an international hit team dispatched from some distant enemy nation. But as Figliuzzi familiarized himself with the evidence taken from the murder scene, he began to wonder which theory was more likely.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: The first gut feeling I had that - all of the concerns being valid at FBI headquarters, that maybe this had been a hit from a foreign team - the first gut feeling I had, that might not be right, was when I looked at an early photo, a snapshot from the detectives of the crime scene, and saw that this woman was lying flat on her back, a blanket tucked around her and over her, and the note pinned neatly to her chest. That was the very first inkling that I had, that someone did this who cared about this woman. This is not a shot to the back of the head. This is not a bloody violent crime scene. This is someone who took care of business but cared about the woman.

NARRATOR: Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right explanation. This is Homicide Investigation 101: always suspect the husband.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: And then, of course, this was further confirmed when we had the note translated. We used a local translator and, not to get into details, but the note certainly reflected a level of apology, intimacy, and love for this woman. And that's when I became convinced that it was our friend, the code clerk who had murdered his wife.

NARRATOR: It was a harrowing scene - one that haunted him in the years after. But this wasn’t an act of terrorism. Figliuzzi had satisfied himself that the tragedy here was one of intimate, rather than global, proportions. No hit squad had encroached upon US territory and neutralized the FBI’s asset - at least not yet, anyway.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Now I can tell you with only limited detail, but every source and method and technique was put into play to try and find this missing code clerk. And intelligence started to come in, very sensitive intelligence, that this code clerk’s country may have dispatched a team to find him, a team traveling into the United States to find him.

NARRATOR: But wait a minute. How had the code clerk’s home nation discovered he’d been compromised? It was not an easy question to answer.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: The very real, even life-threatening dangers of this counterintelligence work, this spy game, is that you never know when your operations are going to be discovered by the other side. And you never know when the sources you've recruited are going to be discovered. You never know who your source might have told about their cooperation in working for you. These are things that are largely out of your control, despite all the steps you take at clandestine operations and communications. We will never know the details of how they discovered that their code clerk was now working for the United States. Was it his wife? Was that why she, in his mind, needed to be murdered? Did she give him up?

NARRATOR: There was also the chance the adversary nation didn’t know their code clerk had been compromised. Remember - the sensitive nature of a code clerk’s work means they’re kept on a very tight leash.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Because they are that window into all that's going in and out of that diplomatic establishment, their life is one that is locked down very often. Back in the day, they would not be permitted to travel even out for lunch without being accompanied by another staff member. It is often described as a hermit's existence.

NARRATOR: With that in mind, a code clerk who goes AWOL is a problem that any nation will want resolved.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Imagine if he doesn't show up for two or three days and you can't find him? So panic, now, I'm sure, ensued. And then, if they were monitoring any news accounts or had learned from maybe her associates that his wife was now dead, there's this other concern that he killed her - which by the way was valid - so they've got a ‘bad egg’ to use a very colloquial term. They have a disaster on their hands, with not only a code clerk who they may be aware is committing treason, as far as they're concerned, but may now be a murderer... Way too much attention being given to this clandestine covert code clerk position, at the least a national embarrassment.

NARRATOR: In short, it didn’t matter how much the adversary nation knew. They wanted the rogue code clerk dealt with. And for the FBI and the US government, in the opposite corner, the matter was equally pressing.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: So operationally the concern, when it's discovered - that someone like a code clerk has been working for the United States - one of the first things that I would do if I were in the shoes of that foreign country would be to absolutely change all codes, all encryption methods, change the form of communication, assume everything that's been communicated recently is now gone to the Americans and essentially shut down how you're doing business in the comms world. That means that America becomes blind to comms for the foreseeable future. That's the number one concern there.

NARRATOR: But there’s also an issue of pride, of jurisdiction, at play here.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: You have the very real diplomatic concern that you've got boots on the ground for people who are either going to kidnap or kill one of your assets. Having that possibility play out on US soil is a major issue that would be briefed to the White House.

NARRATOR: With the enormity of that geopolitical situation as his backdrop, Frank found himself in a race.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: And now we just have to find him before this team does. And look, the FBI is good at finding people in a nationwide hunt, but when you're up against a team of professionals it can get very challenging.

NARRATOR: Two highly motivated sides hunting for a needle in the haystack of America.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: And so you can imagine: airport flight manifests, airport airline computer databases being searched, all known establishments where this guy frequented back in our major city in America, all of that. And even the most sensitive techniques that the US government is capable of in terms of intercept capabilities, electronic communications. All of that's coming into play. And largely coming up empty. 

NARRATOR: We’re talking about a wild goose chase at a national scale and all the while the clock is ticking.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: All of this is playing out over the course of something like 48 hours.

NARRATOR: Then finally, a breakthrough - when one of the FBI’s many ears to the ground picked up something crucial.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: At one moment it all kind of came together when one of our techniques detected that he had called into his embassy and said: "Here's where I am. I want to come in."

NARRATOR: For the first time in his frenzied pursuit, Figliuzzi considered the emotional state of the code clerk, a fugitive, thousands of miles from home. Yes, he had betrayed his home nation, but now he wanted to have his cake and eat it.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: He had made the very agonizing, personal decision earlier to work for what we call ‘Team America’ and work for the FBI and the US government. And now that he was jammed up and in trouble, having murdered his wife, he had decided that he could go back to that other world, the world he came from and that somehow they would understand, and they would take care of him, and he could avoid maybe prison in the United States. But he didn't get the complications of that. He didn't understand what they knew about him, and he didn't understand the magnitude of his betrayal of them and the consequences of murdering a woman on your foreign assignment.

NARRATOR: Consequences that led to that desperate call placed from a payphone on the street after 48 hours on the run. And now, the adversary nation knew precisely where their target was.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: They tell him: "Stay right there. We'll send some folks to pick you up." That's when, literally, a race occurred in that city where eight FBI agents tried desperately to get to that payphone on that street corner before the other guys did.

NARRATOR: But this wasn’t a fair race. The FBI was competing with a major handicap.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I mean, look, you're talking about needing to translate a live conversation that's been picked up, and that takes time. You're talking about confirming where the call's coming from, if he's truly there. By the time all of that process occurs, gets passed to agents who can hit the street... the sad story is that they had just missed him and he was gone.

NARRATOR: This was the outcome the FBI had desperately sought to avoid. Not only had a fugitive wanted for murder slipped through their fingers, they had also lost track of an asset. But he was still on US soil. All was not yet lost. So what happens next?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Well, the question becomes: "Where is he? Where are they taking him?" And there were indications, of course, that they would get him out of the country as fast as possible. That meant the international airport in that major city was the likely form of egress. And again, there's a race to the airport. Let's get to the airport in that city. Let's set up on the international terminals. Let's find out who's booked on what flights. Let's go search the flight manifest database. And all of that's getting done as fast as humanly possible, but not fast enough.

NARRATOR: I wish I could tell you that Figliuzzi’s story was a straightforward one, of good triumphing over bad. But the reality is, it doesn’t always go that way. In the hours and days following the code clerk’s phone call to his embassy - a picture of what had followed began to emerge.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: Investigators grabbed security camera footage at the airport. It became clear to us that this asset had been drugged in some way. He is barely making it through the terminal. You can see on the video that he's got a guy on either side of him. They're propping up his arms, and the flight attendant who worked the flight had told the agents that he slept for the entire flight.

NARRATOR: As more information trickled through, Special Agent Figliuzzi found himself awestruck by the realities of the world that he had been plunged into.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: The fact that this was for real, that there are people on US soil who actually want to grab somebody who was working for us, was mind-opening. It also just hammered home the reality of the very real dangers. I often am guilty [of] talking about a chess game, spy game, but understand something: it can be a deadly game.

NARRATOR: Which is precisely what it turned out to be, for the code clerk who changed sides one too many times.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: There's highly classified information here that I can't get into but just, suffice to say, that all of the US intelligence communities’ methods were put into service here. We're talking about a nation that is not transparent, not easy to determine what happened, but the US intel capabilities from multiple angles determined that he was no longer living.

NARRATOR: In a remote corner of a distant nation, the code clerk paid a final, brutal price for his treachery. Ultimately, this was a game without a winner - and all parties took a share in the loss. Despite its eventual outcome, Frank still looks back at this case with a certain glint in his eye. After all, he was not destined to stay in the thick of it, on the ground, for long.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: I think if you spoke with any FBI manager, senior executive, they would tell you they long for the days when they had their case files, their investigations and they made things happen every day in their field office. But here's the rub in that tension as you try to play out in your career: "Do I want to take that next step into leadership?" The benefit of those leadership positions is you get to live vicariously through those cases of the agents under your responsibility and the personal and professional satisfaction of building those relationships, of being able to guide and shape, not just your cases in your assigned files, but their cases. And then larger and larger responsibilities - not just the squad, but a field office, not just a field office, but an entire national program from headquarters.

NARRATOR: It takes a certain kind of agent to reach the heights of office that Frank managed in the FBI. You can read about what he learned on his way to the top, in his book The FBI Way. Reflecting back now, with a triumphant career distancing him from the case of the code clerk, Figliuzzi realizes how formative it was in his understanding of the world that he had chosen to enter.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: The outcome was not good but the FBI's resources really became clear to me as a young agent working this thing - that what we did had global impact, what we did had life and death repercussions, and what we do every day, was fight an adversary that was willing to kill their own under the right circumstances.

NARRATOR: That’s a fight that continues to this day. The world has changed in a myriad of ways since Frank Figliuzzi chased a rogue code clerk through the shadowy tunnels of international espionage but the nature of the job remains the same.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI: You can't talk about counter-intel changes without talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the opening of Russia, the - what then was called - the end of the Cold War. I'm here to tell you that the Cold War never ended and is colder than ever.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Cesare Frank Figliuzzi, Jr. is the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence. He joined General Electric as assistant chief security officer after leaving the Bureau and is a frequent national security contributor for NBC and MSNBC News.

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