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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A sad commentary, on so many levels.

From last night's Larry King with Bob Woodward ...

KING: The comments about -- that he has made concerning Iraq, where he sort of like -- well, Powell let's go to work -- Powell said first. Powell said it was a minor issue, this thing about uranium and Africa. Do you think it's a minor issue?

WOODWARD: It's got to be explained. But one of the things that's most difficult to understand is what is the basis of an intelligence report? And the CIA and the intelligence community do these things called National Intelligence Estimates. And they are big documents where they take all source intelligence, they put it together, they sit in a room, actually, and debate, do we believe this? Is this credible? Is this supported here?

They do them on things when we're not sure. You don't need a National Intelligence Estimate, for instance, on whether the Soviet Union is collapsed. We know it collapsed. But they would do National Intelligence Estimates on things like, well, what is the threat that Iraq poses? Weapons of mass destruction? And so it clearly says it's an estimate. They make judgments. I've seen some of these things. And there will be a liaison intelligence service report, say from the Jordanians, saying we have a source who says the following. There will be a satellite picture. They're little pieces, little fragments. And it's inevitable one's going to be wrong.

KING: But what makes the State of the Union? That's got to go through -- doesn't that go through a lot of checkpoints?

WOODWARD: Yes, yes, it does. And that's a serious mistake. They've backed off on it in the White House. But Bush needs to explain it. He needs to come forward and say hey, look, people accept in their human relations and in their presidents somebody who says, you know, I messed up on this, and this is how it happened. They need to do that.

KING: Were you surprised that Powell, kind of, dismissed it?

WOODWARD: Well, you know, I'm really on sound ground, here, when I say it's one little piece of thousands of pieces that get sifted when they put something like this together. And you know, I'm sure on occasion, on your show you've said something that turned out to be wrong. You've had bad information. I know in my work, it's happened. And you regret it and you step forward and say, I goofed.

KING: You don't see anything deliberate.

WOODWARD: Not at this point. Not at all. And at the same time, as Richard Nixon said, the cover-up is always worse than the offense. And if they try to not explain it, if they try to say, Oh, you know, we don't have to deal with this, or dismiss it, it's not going to work. They're going to have to come forward and say, Look, this came -- this person -- my understanding is there was some debate about it, and it may have been in one other speech earlier and got deleted and then got put in this one, so...

One little piece? De minimis deception?

I've long been fascinated by the dynamics of breaking news stories. One would imagine they move through a slow aggregation of facts. But that's seldom the case. A story can be reported by a good reporter with solid sources and nothing happens. Then the same story is reported a few weeks later and it explodes. Not so much the facts but the context is different, the moment, the mix of suspicions and momentum. It's reminiscent of the patterns discussed by historians of science like Thomas Kuhn or the sociologist Karl Mannheim.

But then I ditched that academic career, didn't I? So let's cut to the chase.

Tonight the CBS website is running a story that headlines ... "Bush Knew Iraq Info Was False."

For what it's worth, I think the headline gets out a bit ahead of what the story actually reports. But not by much. The key passage reads thus ...

Before the speech was delivered, the portions dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were checked with the CIA for accuracy, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.

CIA officials warned members of the President’s National Security Council staff the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa.

The White House officials responded that a paper issued by the British government contained the unequivocal assertion: “Iraq has ... sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” As long as the statement was attributed to British Intelligence, the White House officials argued, it would be factually accurate. The CIA officials dropped their objections and that’s how it was delivered.

Let's be clear what this means. The White House ran the charge past the CIA. Folks at the agency said, we don't think it's true. The White House's response was to say, well, okay, we won't say whether it's true or not. We'll just say that the British say this. And the Brits are saying this. So we're good.

(Let's just agree that Republican grousing about 'depends what the definition of 'is' is' just ain't gonna have the same sting anymore, will it?)

As it happens, Tom Gjelten of NPR ran basically the exact same story three weeks ago on June 19th. You can hear Gjelten's report here. My description of it from a recent column in The Hill ran as follows ...

On June 19th, NPR’s Tom Gjelten added yet another piece to the puzzle. Apparently the intelligence folks even made their concerns known during the writing of the speech. “Earlier versions of the president’s speech did not cite British sources,” a senior intelligence official told Gjelten. “They were more definitive and we objected.”

At that point, according to Gjelten’s source, “White House officials” said “‘Why don’t we say the British say this?’”

The White House disputes Gjelten’s source’s account. But the upshot of the source’s accusation is pretty damning. If true, the White House really wanted to put the Niger uranium story in the speech. But faced with their own intelligence experts telling them the story was probably bogus, they decided to hang their allegation on the dossier the British had released last September.

This is, I think, exactly the same story. On June 19th it generated little if any attention. I suspect Martin's story will generate a good deal more.

What a difference a day makes! Or, okay, say two days, maybe three ...

Here's Colin Powell's statements today and yesterday on why the president used the uranium-Niger material in his State of the Union address and why Powell himself passed on those charges in his UN presentation.

According to Powell, the Niger uranium documents were "a reasonable statement at [the] time" the president used them in the State of the Union address on January 28th. But by the time Powell gave his presentation at the UN one week later, on February 5th, the charge "was not standing the test of time."

Actually, according to reports from Newsweek and other news outlets in late May and early June, Powell spent February 1st through 4th going over the intelligence evidence in meetings at the CIA. (He derided much of it with what the late, great J. Anthony Lukas once famously called a 'barnyard epithet'.) In any case, this would seem to show that the 'test of time' that the Niger evidence failed to stand stretched from January 29th, 2003 to February 1st, 2003.

Let's go to the tape ...

From today in Pretoria ...

And at the time of the President's State of the Union address, a judgment was made that that was an appropriate statement for the President to make. There was no effort or attempt on the part of the President, or anyone else in the administration, to mislead or to deceive the American people. The President was presenting what seemed to be a reasonable statement at that time -- and it didn't talk to Niger, it talked specifically about efforts to acquire uranium from nations that had it in Africa.

Subsequently, when we looked at it more thoroughly and when I think it's, oh, a week or two later, when I made my presentation to the United Nations and we really went through every single thing we knew about all of the various issues with respect to weapons of mass destruction, we did not believe that it was appropriate to use that example anymore. It was not standing the test of time. And so I didn't use it, and we haven't used it since.

And from yesterday's interview with the BBC ...
MR. FREI: Two more brief ones, if I may, Niger and the issue of the allegations of the uranium exports to Iraq. You, yourself, if I am correct in thinking, thought that that was not a truthful allegation at the time it was made; is that right?

SECRETARY POWELL: The question is not truthfulness. The question is credibility at a moment in time.

MR. FREI: But you had your doubts about it, didn't you?

SECRETARY POWELL: I did not use it in the formal presentation I made on the 5th of February because by then there was such controversy about it, and as we looked at all that we knew about it, it did not seem to be the kind of claim that I should take into the UN. [emphasis added]

What are we, the United States of Chopped Liver? Can't we get the non-bogus intel briefing too? And since when are Republicans UN lovers? I'm lost ...

I guess I have to give Dan Bartlett some measure of credit. He seems to have removed all the squishiness from the story of how that Niger-uranium malarkey got into the State of the Union address.

Read these clips from this article in Thursday's Post ...

White House officials said the uranium claim was included in the president's Jan. 28 address only after the wording had been approved by the CIA, Pentagon and State Department. In his remarks, Bush declared, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Bartlett said the passage was included in drafts of the speech for at least 10 days before Bush delivered it. Bartlett said he knew of no objections to including the charge or debate over the wording.

"We wouldn't lead with something that we thought could be refuted," Bartlett said. "There was no debate or questions with regard to that line when it was signed off on. This was not a last-minute addition."

...

A senior administration official said that numerous officials at the CIA had the chance to object to the line about Hussein's quest for uranium. "If [CIA Director George J.] Tenet had called up and said, 'Take it out,' we would have taken it out," the official said. "When it was signed off on at highest level, it was not brought into question by those who would know or those who were tasked to know at the agency."

The official said the claim was tied to British officials because they had included it in a government intelligence dossier last September. "When given a choice, why not cite a public document?" the official said.

Up until now the line has been that this was some sort of snafu. People at the CIA or State may have known the Niger story was bogus. But the word hadn't filtered up to the White House. Or the speech didn't get shown to the people who knew the details. As Ken Pollack noted in this portion of TPM's interview with him posted on Wednesday, this is what they have been telling him.

But now the story is quite different. It was in the speech for at least ten days prior to its delivery. And the appropriate people from all the key national security agencies and departments signed off on it.

Bartlett's drawn the line pretty clearly, leaving only two real possibilities. Either the speech was intentionally deceptive or folks at the State Department and the CIA were guilty of some mixture of gross negligence and incompetence. The 'senior administration official' quoted in the second passage doesn't even want to leave it that ambiguous. It's George Tenet's fault, he says.

Who falls on his sword here?

Is he kidding? Here's a clip from John Lumpkin's Wednesday evening AP story ...

Rumsfeld, in a terse exchange with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said he learned only "within recent days" that the Africa claims were based on faulty evidence. U.N. officials determined the documents were forgeries before the war.

I guess it depends on what the definition of 'recent' is.

It's been widely known since at least March 8th that the evidence in question was 'faulty'. The US turned over the evidence to IAEA. The IAEA quickly determined they were forgeries and announced its findings publicly. What's more, from the beginning, the US government made it clear that it did not dispute the Agency's findings. The understanding was that the US had got taken in by some forged documents, was a bit embarrassed, but didn't want to dwell on it. A week later, according to an article in the Washington Post (March 13th, 2003, pg. A17.), the FBI began a preliminary investigation into who might have forged the documents -- a fact I figure we can take as prima facie evidence that the US government thought the evidence was 'faulty'.

Whatever the ins and outs of it, everyone has known the documents were bogus for at least four months. (If you were a cabinet secretary in the Bush administration and a member of the National Security Council, let's just say there's some possibility you might have known even before that.)

Even if you take the most innocent possible explanation of how the Niger-uranium docs got into the State of the Union address, Rumsfeld's comments can't possibly be true can they?

Tim, this counts as a whopper, doesn't it?

Or is he already over his quota?

It's usually a bad sign when a criminal defendant has half a dozen defenses against the same charge. You know the drill: I couldn't have been there. I have an alibi. But if I was there I didn't have my glasses. And if I did have my glasses, then I saw someone else do it. And if I did it, well, let me tell you what happened to me when I was three ...

Needless to say, this brings us to Mr. Ari Fleischer.

An alert reader just brought Richard Stevenson's article in the Times' today to my attention -- and in particular this quote ...

But Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Wilson's report was vague and did not specifically address the main problem with the intelligence, that documents purporting to document Iraq's efforts were almost certainly forged.

"He spent eight days in Niger and concluded that Niger denied the allegation," Mr. Fleischer said. "Well, typically nations don't admit to going around nuclear nonproliferation."

Let's take this one step at a time.

First of all, Fleischer is lying. Wilson didn't conclude that Niger "denied the allegation." He concluded, after investigating the allegations from a number of vantage points, that the purported sale was close to impossible, or at least quite unlikely. The reasoning turned on the structure of Niger's uranium consortium, how the uranium is accounted for, and how much Iraq was alleged to have purchased. (Why Stevenson didn't note this, shall we say, 'discrepancy' I have no idea.)

Fleischer is lying -- there's no other way to describe it -- about what Wilson's report said to make it seem less significant than it was. (If Fleischer had said Wilson's reasoning was flawed or his investigation incomplete, then you could say he was spinning or distorting. But saying he said something completely different from what he said means he's lying.) He's making it seem less significant than it was to make it appear less culpable that the White House ignored his findings. But the White House's story is that it never heard about his findings. So why the need to discredit his report?

The answer is obvious. They're trying to set up multiple lines of defense.

We didn't hear about it. But if we did hear about it, it didn't amount to much so we ignored it.

Let's have one defense and stick with it, okay?

I had planned on publishing part two of TPM's interview with Kenneth Pollack at the end of this week. But the first couple questions in that second part deal with the controversy surrounding those bogus Niger uranium documents. And with that story seeming to catch some fire in the last couple days, I'm going to go ahead and post that part of the interview this afternoon. The rest of part two of the interview will follow later this week.

Keep in mind that this back and forth took place at the beginning of last week, before the revelations of the last few days ...

TPM: Let me ask you one more question on this front before we move to the post-war part … this question of these uranium sale documents. There've been three or four fairly heavily reported pieces on this --- there's Nick Kristof's piece, there's one in The New Republic, a few electronic media reports. And I think in toto, they make a pretty decent circumstantial case that either principals in the administration must have known about this CIA report or that if they didn't then you have a breakdown in communications that is the kind of thing that people get fired over. It's hard to see that that information wouldn't have gotten to the Vice President or to Condi Rice or something like that. What's your sense of that?

Pollack: Yeah, it is the most interesting thing out there because if it turns out to be true in the sense that Sy Hersch has suggested, and that Nick Kristof is trying to prove, I think it really is a damning indictment of the administration. What I'll say is that people from inside the administration have been trying very hard to convince me that in fact it's not nearly as bad as suggested. And, you know, they have some interesting points. What they basically say is, look, you know, the vice-president's office did find out but the timing isn't the way that you've got it. And in fact when they found out that it was forged that's what led to its being yanked from Colin Powell's presentation. But simultaneously the speechwriter for the State of the Union address had just gone to the earlier, to the British report basically and pulled it from the British report. And they make the point --- and they're absolutely right about this --- which is that no one saw the State of the Union.

TPM: Wouldn't the vice-president, the vice-president has to see the State of the Union.

Pollack: You would be, the vice-president may have. But the vice-president may not have known the information. It doesn't necessarily go to the staff. And I think that people really would be struck or be really stunned at how few people see the State of the Union address. That actually does ring true for me. Again, this is all unsubstantiated. Even there, I think that you could make the case that, well, alright, if they did find out later on that it was a forgery, shouldn't they have gone out and said … ladies and gentlemen of the American public and the world we actually told you something that was incorrect. We talked about this uranium from Niger … we've now found that the information was forged.

If that's true, which is the version that the administration is telling me, I think that that's still an indictment. But it's obviously not nearly as bad as if they knew about it and purposely let this stuff go out knowing that it was forged. That's kind of a longwinded way of saying at the moment I think the jury is still out.

It certainly looks bad any way you slice it. Certainly there are people at CIA who seem to have known about this long in advance. And it's just unclear exactly how they disseminated that information. But in deference to my old friends at CIA --- and I don't mean to be apologetic for them --- they were in a position where they felt so beaten down by this administration that I don't think they were feeling terribly charitable. And I think that to any low-level CIA officer, the idea of going out, kind of out of channels to say, hey, this big story that you guys thought you had on Niger uranium, it's false. You know, I think by that point in time they just felt like if I do that those guys in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] are going to beat the hell out of me. And why do I need this?

And this is kind of part of the larger picture out there. We're focused on these specific details and there's a reason for that. Because if you can make the case stick on the Niger uranium then you've got a really damning indictment, as I've said. But I think the truth of the matter is that the larger problem was just this more general day-to-day of beating up the Agency for any assessments that weren't sufficiently alarmist. And, again, not doing anything illegal, just making the lives of the analysts so miserable that they didn't want to keep writing this kind of stuff while simultaneously cherry picking intelligence to try to put together the most alarming case you could in this shop over at the Pentagon and using that as an alternative set of analyses that was given just as much --- what's the word I'm looking for? --- attention and credibility as what the CIA and the other intelligence agencies were coming up with in these high-level meetings.

More on this soon.

Oh, Rick! Every good defense attorney knows that you need to make sure you've got a handle on the facts in evidence before you come up with your cover story. We all know that, right? Yesterday, Senator Rick Santorum said the following to The New York Times ...

Obviously, when you use foreign intelligence, you — we don't have necessarily as much confidence or as much reliability as you do your own. It has since turned out to be, at least according to the reports that have been just released, not true. The president stepped forward and said so. I think that's all you can expect.
Now, I'm all for buying only bona-fide Made-in-the-USA product. But there's a bit of a problem with Santorum's angle on this controversy. According to what we currently know, the White House preferred British intelligence to American intelligence. In fact, according to reporting by NPR's Tom Gjelten (noted in yesterday's post below), the White House had American intelligence that said one thing (no, Niger uranium) and British intelligence that said something else (yes, Niger uranium). And the White House went with the British intelligence because it was more helpful in making the White House's case.

We'll leave aside for the moment the fact that the White House almost certainly knew that the Brits' intelligence was based on the same bogus documents the CIA had already concluded were fakes.

It just goes to show, you're always better off buying American. Especially if you're a politician.

The most interesting bit of reporting I've seen today on the White House's concession about the fraudulence of the Niger-uranium documents comes at the tail end of a wire story from Reuters ...

A U.S. intelligence official said [Joseph] Wilson was sent to investigate the Niger reports by mid-level CIA officers, not by top-level Bush administration officials. There is no record of his report being flagged to top level officials, the intelligence official said.

"He is placing far greater significance on his visit than anyone in the U.S. government at the time it was made," the official said, referring to Wilson's New York Times article.

The message here seems pretty clear: Joseph who? Wilson, this 'intelligence official' is saying, is some small-time operator who got sent to Niger by some mid-level functionaries at the CIA. All the people who counted had no idea he'd even gone on his trip. And they certainly didn't know about his vaunted report.

Now, I wouldn't be being very straight with you if I didn't start by saying that I don't find this claim particularly credible. But could this be true?

Let's run through what we know.

Wilson has said repeatedly that he was sent to Niger because, as he wrote in the Times, "Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report."

Now, note the difference in what's being said here. No one, let alone Wilson, has claimed that any "top-level Bush administration officials" sent him on his investigatory trip. What he and others have said is that CIA officials sent him out, because they were following up on a request from the Office of the Vice President (OVP) to look into the Niger-uranium allegations.

So to start with you can say that the 'intelligence official's' statement amounts to a sort of non-denial denial. But what about the broader question? Was the whole effort triggered by an inquiry from the OVP or not?

Wilson says yes. And presumably he's basing this on some knowledge of the situation. Nick Kristof said the same thing in his June 13th column in the Times, though it's possible that Wilson was his source. But if there's a factual dispute here, let's find out. Is Wilson's description of the OVP's involvement accurate? In particular, did the OVP get Wilson's eventual report? I think this is something a good investigative reporter with juice should be able to resolve for us pretty quickly. So, again, let's find out.

And there's another problem with the 'intelligence official's' angle. Let's say this was just something Joseph Wilson and a few of his buddies at the CIA knew about. And no one at the White House found out about it. Even if that's true, he's not the only person nor is the CIA the only agency, for that matter, that came to this conclusion.

Greg Thielmann recently left the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, State's intelligence bureau. He says that I&R independently came to the same conclusion as Wilson about the Niger story. And he told Kristof -- again in the June 13th column -- that he was "quite confident" that that judgment had been passed all the way up the chain of command at State.

Kristof threw in this line for good measure ...

"It was well known throughout the intelligence community that it was a forgery," said Melvin Goodman, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Center for International Policy.
What I think we can draw from this is that there were multiple agencies in the national security bureaucracy that had judged the Niger information to be bogus. Perhaps none of them were passed on to high-level administration officials. But the more and more widely the documents' bogusity, shall we say, was known throughout the government, the less credible it is that the whole top level of the executive branch was out of the loop on what everyone else seemed to know.

Then you have the biggest problem, as I see it at least, with this argument.

The White House seemed to go to great lengths to find some outside authority to base its uranium sales claims on. The State of the Union speech ended up basing the claim on what the Brits had said.

In fact, according to one report by NPR's Tom Gjelten, this is exactly what happened: they used the Brits as cover because their own intelligence people were telling them the story was bogus. You can hear Gjelten's report here. But here's my summary of it from a recent column in The Hill ...

On June 19th, NPR’s Tom Gjelten added yet another piece to the puzzle. Apparently the intelligence folks even made their concerns known during the writing of the speech. “Earlier versions of the president’s speech did not cite British sources,” a senior intelligence official told Gjelten. “They were more definitive and we objected.”

At that point, according to Gjelten’s source, “White House officials” said “‘Why don’t we say the British say this?’”

The White House disputes Gjelten’s source’s account. But the upshot of the source’s accusation is pretty damning. If true, the White House really wanted to put the Niger uranium story in the speech. But faced with their own intelligence experts telling them the story was probably bogus, they decided to hang their allegation on the dossier the British had released last September.

Now, even if we discount Gjelten's report, it does seem like the White House knew it would be nice to have some other support for their claims about Iraqi uranium purchases and that there were some reasons for concern about their own 'evidence.' Their own actions seems to show they suspected something was wrong.

So I don't think dumping on Wilson, which seems to be the White House's preferred strategy now, is going to cut it. But in each of these cases, let's find out. If Wilson and Thielmann are fibbing let's expose them. And if their superiors are playing fast and loose with the truth, let's find that out too. Let the chips fall where they may.

Some military jets are equipped with the ability to toss off a cluster of flares in mid-flight to throw off heat-seeking missiles. I think that's what Ari Fleischer and the White House were doing yesterday when they admitted that the president's State of the Union claims about Iraq buying uranium in Africa were wrong.

Yesterday, I posted portions of Fleischer's remarks from Monday morning's press gaggle in which he got awkwardly tripped up in questioning about the Niger-uranium issue and promised a definitive answer later in the day.

That statement went out in dribs and drabs overnight and the Times and the Post have stories on it on their websites today.

But let's look at what the White House is saying. In essence, they're saying that the Niger documents were forgeries. But then, we already knew that. Indeed, the White House has conceded this for months. Sometimes publicly; sometimes privately. Here's what they're saying now, according to the Post: "Knowing all that we know now the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech."

But, of course, the real issue is that there is at least very strong circumstantial evidence that knowing what they knew then, the Uranium hocum never should have been put into the speech either. This is a classic case of trying to jump out ahead of a story by conceding a point that no one is actually disputing in the first place.

Now, there is one small admission here that's worth noting. Up until now, the White House has often implied that, though Niger-uranium documents were bogus, there was other intelligence that justified the claims about uranium purchases in Africa. Last month, NSC spokesman Sean McCormack said: "Those documents were only one piece of evidence in a larger body of evidence suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa. The issue of Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa is supported by multiple sources of intelligence. The other sources of evidence did and do support the president's statement."

This was always one of the most intriguing elements of the White House's defense. Because they seemed to be referring to intelligence so top-secret and rarefied that they couldn't even share it with the CIA or other members of the intelligence community. It was so top-secret that only the president's speech writers had sufficiently high security clearances to see it. That was the story on some days. On others, the other intelligence seemed to be the 'dossier' published by the British -- which of course was based on the same bogus Niger documents.

Whatever the case, the 'other intelligence' line no longer seems to be operative.

According to the White House's statement last night, quoted in the Times: "There is other reporting to suggest that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa. However, the information is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that attempts were in fact made." A "senior administration official" told the Post that there were "possible attempts" by Iraqis to buy uranium in Namibia and Gabon but that those reports "were all somewhat sketchy."

(I translate this roughly as: "It's not true that we had no other information. We had some. But it was information so fragmentary, questionable and meaningless that we'd really just as soon not go into it." Further translation: according to the distinct recollection of Ahmed Chalabi's brother's butler ...)

The new White House line leaves just as many unanswered questions as before. Did the White House know the CIA had reported that the story was bogus or not? If they didn't know there were problems with the Niger documents, why the big fuss about hanging the allegations on what the Brits said? And if they did know about the problems with the Niger documents, why use the Brits' report as a fig leaf, when their claims were based on the same Niger documents the CIA -- i.e., our lead intelligence agency -- had already decided were bogus? Who approved putting it in the speech in the first place and was that line run by intelligence officials or not?

Both the Times (David Sanger) and the Post (Walter Pincus) have stories on these latest developments today. But surprisingly, Pincus doesn't get into any of the obvious questions which the new White House line poses. Sanger's piece goes much further and asks a lot of those questions.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that Sanger's piece is more aggressive and incisive. He, after all, was the 'David' who Fleischer was sparring with in yesterday's interchange.

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