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Our Foreign Affairs Establishment: The Need For Reform

ISSUE:  Spring 1969


Before the Second World War it was customary to lay the blame for the more flagrant mistakes of American foreign policy on the President and the party in power. Until relatively recently, the major foreign policy problems that confronted each Administration were few in number and generally translatable into simple political issues. As late as the Roosevelt era it was almost unheard of for the press or Congress to ascribe mistakes of policy or deficiencies in program execution to advisers, department heads, or the machinery of government. In the absence of some glaring and well-publicized delinquency on the part of a subordinate, the President or Secretary of State carried the full burden of responsibility for the success or failure of their policies.

With the rise of big government, and the expansion of American involvement in world affairs at every level and in every quarter of the globe, these premises have undergone a subtle change. The President and the Secretary of State are now in some respects exculpated for policy mistakes and breakdowns in program execution. The sudden elevation in 1945 of an inexperienced President to the political leadership of the Western world, and the inability of even the most inveterate opponents of American wartime policy to hold him responsible for the Cold War and the postwar disappointments in Eastern Europe and the Far East, accentuated this trend. For a while, it became the fashion to arraign policy advisers, Cabinet officers, and even interpreters and part-time consultants, for policy failures or program breakdowns. More recently the tendency has been to avoid personalities and focus on the system. 

Since the nineteen forties most of the criticism has centered on the Department of State. This is the price of the Department’s pre-eminence and high visibility in the field of foreign affairs, and of a consequent propensity on the part of the public and other branches of the government to hold it responsible for unfavorable developments. Out of this chorus of annoyance and recrimination) four specific complaints stand out. It is alleged that too often the Department has proved unable to provide clear-cut definitions of the national interest in advance of specific crisis situations. It has been charged that the Department often seems incapable of translating its generalized statements of national goals into specific action programs or into crisply phrased alternative courses from which decisions can be made. It is said that the Department hedges its political estimates to the point of inconclusiveness and obscurity. And, moving from policy formulation to policy execution, it has been alleged that the Department does not exercise effective leadership over the other departments and agencies of the foreign affairs establishment, with the result that programs either fail to reflect policy or are so deficient in direction and co-ordination that they unwittingly frustrate and vitiate it. Readers may remember the epithet, “bowl of jelly,” attributed to President Kennedy by Arthur Schlesinger, as perhaps epitomizing these strictures. 

The best evidence of the truth behind these charges is the way Presidents have consistently tinkered with the foreign affairs establishment in an effort to cure or at least mitigate some of its deficiencies. Depending on the temperament and philosophy of the incumbent, the problem has been viewed either in terms of personalities or in terms of organization. Broadly speaking, these efforts have fallen into four categories.

The first has been organizational change, some of it real, much of it fictitious. New jobs have been created and old ones abolished; presidential functions have been delegated and redelegated; the chain of command has been realigned; people and offices have been given new labels. Some of the changes have been motivated by the need tore-tailor functions to fit personalities; some of them to achieve bona fide changes of responsibility; and perhaps most to satisfy demands for a new look. In recent history, none has been fundamental enough to alter the basic structure and operation of the Department.

A second approach—really a variant of the first—has been to stiffen State’s backbone by giving it more authority. This has usually taken the form of re-emphasizing the Department’s “leadership” role within the Executive Branch. President Kennedy’s letter of May, 1961, placing all United States Government activities in a foreign country under the supervision and control of the Ambassador, is perhaps the best known of these efforts. However, its practical effects have been minimal. The scope of the letter was necessarily limited to activities under the immediate control of the Ambassador and could not alter the legal effect of agency responsibilities in the slightest. A later directive of President Johnson (NSAM 341 of April, 1966), placing all overseas interdepartmental programs and activities under the supervision and control of the Secretary of State, was an attempt to extend this concept to Washington. As we shall see, it suffered from similar legal disabilities.

State has also experimented with the interdepartmental committee device to establish control over the overseas programs of other agencies. These have usually been set up under State chairmanship within the framework of a State regional bureau. Some recent examples are the Vietnam Task Force, the former Cuban Co-ordinating Committee, the now defunct Latin American and African Policy Committees, and the new Interdepartmental Regional Groups (IRGs). The effectiveness of these State-sponsored, interdepartmental committees has tended to mirror the willingness and capacity of the regional Assistant Secretaries to make use of them.

A third approach has involved efforts to make the Department, especially the Foreign Service, more responsive to changing conditions by improving its personnel. These have included broadening the selection base, changing promotion criteria, and trying to integrate civil service personnel from the Department and other agencies into the Foreign Service. Among the means employed to achieve these ends have been financial incentives for early retirement; proposed legislation to integrate autonomous agencies like AID and USIA into the Department; and opening—and later closing—the career ranks to lateral entry from the outside. Whether these reforms have actually improved our diplomatic performance is a matter of endless, and inconclusive, debate.

Finally should be mentioned recent attempts to introduce modern systems analysis and data processing techniques into the machinery. These have included personnel planning, country programming systems, and the so-called PPB method of relating objectives to costs and then projecting the latter for a five-year period. Most of these programs have been allowed to fall into desuetude before there was time to permit objective evaluation in terms of results.

Each of these approaches has been aimed at enhancing State’s “leadership” of the foreign affairs establishment. Yet none seem to have had any real effect on the quality of American diplomacy. Persons brought in as “new brooms” have exhausted themselves in piecemeal attacks on the problem and futile efforts to cut through bureaucratic red­tape. As soon as they depart, the jungle takes over.


The foreign affairs establishment cannot be streamlined or invigorated by half-measures confined to the State Department. Individual changes in the Department’s organization, personnel system, training programs, and programming methods are going to yield only minimal and probably indiscernible results in terms of improved policy performance unless the Department’s role is re-examined within the context of the whole foreign affairs field and especially the missions of other agencies—Defense, CIA, USIA, AID, and Treasury. Moreover, the effectiveness of the machinery must be measured in terms of the realities of contemporary international life-not in terms of traditional concepts of the diplomatic function dating back to the days when statecraft chiefly involved political relations between governments.

The task must begin with a realistic appraisal of the real power of the Secretary of State as compared with his mythical power. Ostensibly, the Secretary is the President’s principal adviser on foreign affairs, and the Department of State, with its 25,000 employees overseas and in Washington, is his ancillary and supporting arm. The Secretary is also the prime executant of United States foreign policy—but only in the sense that he translates the President’s policy decisions into instructions for Ambassadors and other United States representatives abroad, and acts as a conduit of communication between the United Stales and foreign governments. In addition, the Department exercises a policy advisory function for the rest of the government by furnishing other agencies engaged in overseas operations with what is termed political guidance. The Secretary and the Department do not, of course, make policy; that is the President’s function.

In these capacities, the State Department’s actual role has always been cloudy and cannot really be understood except in an historical context. The concept of a department of foreign affairs dates from an era when the relations be­ tween sovereign independent states were confined to a narrow range of political and economic matters, and were the exclusive province of the monarch or chief of state; the first foreign ministries were small bureaus of specialized clerks attached to the royal household who later expanded their functions to handle the routine concerns of foreign embassies and provide staff and clerical support for the King’s Ambassadors. The narrow view held by many Foreign Service officers that the Department’s functions should be confined to the conduct of diplomatic relations between heads of governments is therefore the bona fide legacy of an earlier age. A more pernicious part of the tradition is the conviction that all the manifold relations between states—economic, financial, strategic, technological, cultural—are unimportant until elevated to the level of political relations between governments.

This limited outlook is reinforced by the values built into the Foreign Service promotion system which put a premium on political reporting and the handling of intergovernmental communications. The Department abounds with political generalists parading a sham expertise in the specialties of other agencies-politico-military “experts” who have never worn a uniform, technological “experts” with no scientific background, and economic negotiators who are neither ex­bankers nor ex-businessmen—whose careers depend on the pre-eminence of the political factor over other elements of the foreign affairs equation. In background and experience most of them are bureaucrats rather than diplomatists. They have lost the foreign area familiarity, language fluency, and cosmopolitan outlook of the traditional diplomat, without acquiring the assurance, versatility, and professional skill that goes with a sound professional or business background.

More important is that in recent years the Secretary of State’s real authority has suffered serious dilution. The expansion of United States interests overseas, the proliferation of relations with allies and adversaries at every level, and the growth of United States overseas programs in support of these responsibilities and relationships have multiplied the voices entitled to give advice and orders on matters of foreign policy. The Secretary is now only one of several cabinet officers and agency heads carrying heavy responsibilities in the field of foreign affairs. 

Thus, in the sphere of policy formulation, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff each make a contribution on specialized aspects of foreign policy that is often more essential to the decision process than the generalized political “input” of the Secretary of State. The effort of the Department to label all important matters political, on the ground that a synthesis of these different elements is required, or to reduce them to a political formulation simply because governments are involved, is a transparent artifice to retain control. It is also a dangerous one. No President can afford to have his analyses of vital problems distorted to gratify the jurisdictional vanity of one department, or to have vital information filtered through a sieve of inexpert generalists.

Even when a Secretary of State enjoys the complete confidence of the President and plays a leading role in policy formulation, his Department does not necessarily partake of his influence within the Executive Branch. Much depends on the personal stature and influence of the other members of the Cabinet. Not that the heads of other Departments and Presidential appointees are inherently rivals of the Secretary of State or are out to undermine him. On the broad outlines of foreign policy, they usually take great pains to defer to him. But in matters of policy execution the Secretary’s pre-eminence as the President’s principal adviser on foreign affairs is very largely a fiction for the very good reason that policy execution is action far more than words. The verbal notification, however skillfully phrased, is only the official message.

Even the State Department’s authentic diplomatic function of representing the United States in negotiations and conferences is now often a formality. When the main ingredients of an agenda are military, economic, financial, technological, or legal, the harassed generalists of the Department can usually contribute so little in the way of substance that they are hopelessly dependent on the experts of other departments. If they try to play a more active part, the consequences are likely to be disastrous: a career diplomat will frequently trade off important technical advantages, whose significance escapes him, in favor of some ephemeral political advantage.

The most striking example of the Department’s limitations in policy execution, however, is its lack of control over the overseas programs and activities that are now the real instruments of policy execution.

Since the end of World War II, the deployment over­seas of large United States land, sea, and air forces has been both a major instrument of policy implementation and a source of involvement in foreign internal affairs. Our military and economic assistance programs—now chiefly centered in the less developed countries—are also important arms of policy and sources of overseas involvement. Covert assistance programs and the use of modern electronic and satellite technology for intelligence collection have enmeshed the United States in an ominous web of subterranean relationships with foreign government personalities and political factions. Even the anodyne public information function of the United States Information Agency has been broadened to include a technical assistance function aimed at helping shaky governments to program political broadcasts for strengthening their ties with disaffected rural areas.

Few of these programs and activities are under the operational control of the State Department. All the important ones are the statutory responsibility of other powerful autonomous departments and agencies. Many are the subject of special and sometimes complex legislation. Appropriations for these programs and activities are often hedged about with special requirements and restrictions, some of them specifically designed to protect them from outside interference or control.

President Johnson’s directive of April, 1966, already mentioned, ostensibly endowed the Secretary of State with responsibility for the overall direction, co-ordination, and supervision of interdepartmental programs and activities overseas. In fact, the directive was legally powerless to affect the program responsibilities of the departments and agencies concerned, each of which is acutely conscious of its unique mission and prerogatives. At least two other agencies—Defense and CIA—are fully the equals of State in power and influence, not only within the Executive Branch but on Capitol Hill; while AID, USIA, and the Disarmament Agency, although nominally part of State, are in fact semi­autonomous organizations, with separate budgets, personnel hierarchies, and top-level management by energetic, in­ dependently-minded political appointees.

In theory, the Department of State has the authority and prestige to synchronize these multifarious activities and programs and make them conform to policy. Every overseas program of the other departments and agencies is subject to the Department’s political guidance. But this guidance (usually furnished at “bureau level”) is often general to the point of abstraction. Its formulations are difficult to apply to concrete program situations. Often the guidance is susceptible to such a wide range of interpretations that it justifies the most aberrant departures in program execution.

All too often, the Department’s solution to this embarrassing anomaly is a tacit arrangement whereby acquiescence in the program decisions of other agencies is traded off for lip-service compliance with the Department’s political guidance. This usually works until the moment when vital agency interests are engaged or when there are real differences of opinion on questions of policy implementation, at which time the compact tends to come apart. Since the Department cannot afford to endanger the Secretary’s prestige by engaging his authority in every wrangle, the result is usually a disguised surrender, in which the program at issue is either redefined to bring it into conformity with policy, however it may diverge from or even vitiate that policy, or the policy is reformulated to provide room for wider divergencies.

The truth is that the growing complexity of the international environment renders not only the State Department but every other single agency of government incapable of coping with the full range of international problems. Today, these embrace every aspect of national life, internal social and economic considerations included. Consequently no statement of foreign policy goals can hope to make sense unless it takes into account two factors normally excluded from policy deliberations within the Department—the national resources available to carry out a policy and the domestic political climate. Yet up to now, the Department’s guidance to both the White House and other departments has invariably assumed unlimited national resources and complete unanimity of public opinion, in defiance of contemporary economic and political reality. Such weighty factors as creeping inflation, racial unrest, deteriorating public services, an adverse balance of payments, mounting demands from the cities for federal dollars, and the obvious incapacity of the country to finance both an ambitious domestic program and a global security system are deliberately excluded from Department position papers. Nor are the master plans and grand designs drawn up by the deskbound Policy Planning Council ever tested against the prevailing background of public and congressional opinion.

The same narrow approach stultifies the implementation of policy. To cite only one example: The Communist and extreme left-wing threat to vulnerable countries of the underdeveloped world is not simply subversion, terrorism, and guerrilla warfare. It also involves the establishment of an underground political network, a shadow government, a clandestine system of taxation and financial levies, a propaganda campaign aimed at disaffected segments of the population, a system of internal conscription, and partial (but not necessarily total) disruption of certain (but not all) parts of the economy. It can only be defeated, or at least frustrated, by a carefully synchronized counter-insurgency program structured to fit local conditions and embracing such variegated elements as economic assistance, police assistance, military assistance, public information guidance, and covert activities. Since these elements necessarily depend on the contributions of different departments and agencies, there must be a single hand to manipulate the threads or they will start to operate at cross-purposes. Today, in Washington at least, this hand is absent.


It is the incapacity of the foreign affairs establishment, headed by State, to give active direction, or at least co-ordination, to the overseas programs of the rest of the government that has periodically led the White House to intervene in the policy implementation process, even at the cost of depriving the President of his Olympian freedom from operational detail.

Several approaches have been tried at one time or another. The first has been the creation of a White House foreign affairs staff. Dating back to Woodrow Wilson, and even before, some Presidents have placed heavy reliance on a personal foreign affairs adviser. Colonel House is one example, Harry Hopkins, McGeorge Bundy, and now Henry Kissinger are three others. Bundy and his successors have been provided with a staff, informally organized along regional lines, which has operated freely at every level of government.

The main advantage of the private adviser approach is the ability to obtain objective advice from a trusted confidant, who is unimpeded by departmental loyalties. The principal defect is that the more active and ambitious the adviser and his staff as a stimulus and catalyst for the rest of the government, the more they enfeeble institutional authority and induce over-reliance on the White House. Persons in government develop such an acute sensitivity to political power that proximity to the throne creates lines of magnetic attraction that utterly disorient normal centers of responsibility. This was the main reason why President Johnson sharply curtailed the power and latitude of the National Security Council staff after McGeorge Bundy’s departure.

A second and less well known device for injecting the White House into the foreign policy decision process is the Presidentially-sponsored interdepartmental committee, usually established at Cabinet or sub-Cabinet level to handle major questions of national security policy. In theory the National Security Council exists for this purpose, but statutory membership requirements make it a cumbersome instrument for any purpose short of a major crisis. (It may be remembered that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was handled by an ad hoc Executive Committee of the National Security Council to keep deliberations small and secure.) There are four prominent examples of White House-sponsored interdepartmental committees in recent history.

The Planning Board and Operations Co-ordinating Board were established by the Eisenhower Administration for the express purpose of co-ordinating policy with over­ seas programs. Their interdepartmental organization borrowed heavily from the joint staff committee structure developed in World War II. However, the OCB soon mush­ roomed into a multi-layered structure of committees, sub­committees, and working groups in which co-ordination became an end in itself and the status report was raised to a fine art. One of President Kennedy’s first acts in office was to abolish the OCB, on the grounds that the organization had become a “paper mill.” The Planning Board was al­ lowed to fall into desuetude.

In its time the OCB did, however, succeed in imposing some degree of co-ordination on the foreign policy process, and its abolition left departmental and agency programs disjointed and without common purpose and direction. President Kennedy was therefore forced to resort to several ad hoc arrangements to take up the slack, of which the first was the Special Group. This was a sub-Cabinet committee, chaired by the President’s Special Assistant for National Security, which was established after the Bay of Pigs to keep the covert programs of the CIA in line with foreign policy. No attempt was made to place the Group under the chairmanship of State, since it was recognized that State was legally and morally incapable of controlling the CIA.

The second high-level interdepartmental committee established by President Kennedy was the Special Group (Counter-Insurgency). It was created in January, 1962, to supervise policy and co-ordinate overseas assistance programs aimed at countering the Communist and extreme left-wing insurgency threat to the underdeveloped world. Originally chaired by General Maxwell D. Taylor when he was President Kennedy’s Military Representative, the chairmanship was later given to State. The Special Group (Counter-Insurgency) had its most successful period under the chairmanship of W. Averell Harriman, when he was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 1962 to 1965. The Group’s most vocal and energetic member was Robert Kennedy, who sat more as the President’s brother than in his capacity as Attorney General. It was so effective, however, that Secretary Rusk regarded it as a competing center of power. At his insistence, the President abolished it after a pro forma review by an outside task force, and its functions were transferred to the newly created Senior Interdepartmental Group (SIG).

The Senior Interdepartmental Group (SIG) represented the final effort of the Johnson administration to achieve co­ordination of overseas policies and programs under the leadership of State. SIG’s charter was similar to that of the Special Group (Counter-Insurgency), but without being confined to a particular kind of foreign policy problem. It was chaired by then Under Secretary of State Katzenbach and met in State rather than in the White House-an important distinction—but its muscle sprang from its Presidential sponsorship. Unfortunately, SIG was an outstanding failure, owing to excessive paperwork, feeble chairmanship, and flabby staffwork—all the vices of the old OCB. SIG was abolished by President Nixon in February, 1969, and its functions were taken over by a new interdepartmental committee of Under Secretaries chaired by Under Secretary Richardson.

The virtue of the White House-sponsored co-ordinating committee, when properly managed, lies in its ability to refer troublesome interdepartmental differences to top-level mediation before positions have hardened to the point of becoming infected with the malignant virus of agency prestige. The committee technique can also produce prompt action on disputes over program execution that might other­ wise remain bogged down in a bureaucratic impasse. The mere existence of such a high-level group is therefore a powerful stimulus to action, the alternative being exposure of low-level rigidity and red-tape.

The defects of the White House-sponsored committee are some derogation of departmental responsibility and a tendency to lean on the committee for decisions that should have been made earlier by each department. Moreover, all such committees, regardless of their imposing charters and brass­encrusted membership, suffer from intermittency. Sub-Cabinet officers and heads of independent agencies rarely have time to meet more than once a week. Each meeting lasts for an hour or two. Once a decision is made, responsibility for implementation and follow-up necessarily devolves on the officials and institutions whose inadequacies made the Group necessary in the first place. And the war council atmosphere tends to lull everyone into the comfortable delusion that well-staffed papers, decisively handled in Washington, are synonymous with effective solutions in the field. The high-level interdepartmental committee is therefore most effective when restricted to handling only important matters in which the issues are carefully defined in advance.


None of these devices, alone or in combination, really gets to the heart of the matter. They grossly underrate the expanded scope of foreign relations and the interrelationship between domestic and foreign policy. They utterly neglect the peculiar structure of the Executive Branch, with its system of essentially independent departments and agencies, each endowed with a carefully defined mandate and set of statutory responsibilities. Innovations of far greater depth and ingenuity are necessary to make the foreign affairs establishment more responsive to Presidential needs.

There must first be complete acceptance of the fact that foreign relations are now a medley of social, economic, financial, strategic, ideological, and technological interrelationships in which the foreign and domestic elements are inextricably mingled. Second, all agencies of the Executive Branch, and especially the State Department, must recognize that the underlying forces in international relations take their shape, direction, and momentum from the evolution and interplay of societies—not from the political pronouncements of governments and foreign ministries. The traditional emphasis on intergovernmental relations must be discarded and the political side of foreign affairs viewed more as a reflection or manifestation of underlying trends than as an autonomous factor in its own right. Third, it must be universally accepted that the field of foreign relations transcends the jurisdictional scope of any single department or agency, and can only be comprehended and dealt with on a supra-agency level.

Ideally, the most satisfactory way of creating a unified entity capable of comprehending and dealing with the full range of contemporary foreign policy problems would be to terminate the separate agency responsibilities in the foreign affairs field and combine them under a single Department of Foreign Affairs. But it would require half a generation to prepare the ground for legislation of so sweeping a character. Hence, the only practical course is to reorganize the foreign affairs establishment within the framework of existing law.

A first step to revitalize policy planning by placing it under the control of the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs was taken by the Nixon administration in February, 1969. The next step should be to establish, by Executive Order, a permanent interdepartmental Foreign Affairs Council to make recommendations on key issues of foreign policy and the national security, and tore­ solve major interdepartmental problems concerning overseas programs and activities. The Council would consist of the heads of the principal departments and agencies of the foreign affairs establishment—State, Defense, Treasury, the Central Intelligence Agency, AID, and USIA, with other agencies represented ad hoc as necessary—and would be chaired by the President’s Special Assistant for Security Affairs, now elevated to the new Cabinet post of Secretary for National Security Affairs. It would meet not more than twice monthly and would depend on a small staff and secretariat to keep its agenda important and meaningful, and to arrange for the implementation of its decisions.

The Staff and Secretariat of the Council would be composed of a cadre of career military and civilian officials drawn from every agency of government, supplemented by a diversified and rotating element of skilled professionals from civilian life and the staffs of Congress. The rotating element would be deliberately appointed on a political basis, (i.e., its adherence to the policies of the administration in power) so as to provide an organic link between the permanent bureaucracy and the electorate.

The two principal functions of the Staff would be national policy planning and the co-ordination of overseas programs and activities. In its planning role, the Staff would be particularly charged with weighing all the factors, foreign and domestic, that enter into the sound formulation of policy and making recommendations of both courses of action and allocation of resources. When refined and endorsed by the Council, these recommendations would be forwarded to the President and become the basis for major policy decisions and program actions. Under this system, the President’s responsibility for actually making policy would remain undiminished.

In mission and organization, the departments and agencies represented on the Council would remain substantially the same as before, but with a few important modifications. State would continue to be the sole conduit for official communications with foreign governments. It would also continue to handle all routine diplomatic and consular business, and would dominate the formal and ceremonial aspects of intergovernmental relations, including representation on international organizations at non-specialized levels. The Secretary of State would not, however, be cast in the role of a policy advisor and program co-ordinator in areas beyond his competence.

As a corollary, the regular Foreign Service would revert to being an authentic diplomatic corps, much smaller in size and more selectively chosen. On the other hand, the Foreign Service Reserve would be expanded and diversified by offering open lateral entry at every level to well-qualified economic, financial, scientific, and legal specialists. Whether or not AID and USIA should be merged into State could be decided later, but all three agencies would gradually reduce their inflated corpus of foreign affairs generalists and replace them with specialists. Administrators would be confined to administration, in the sense of housekeeping and technical management. However, an orderly but flexible promotion system would be devised for each track of category, offering parallel routes to the top, and in special cases allowing transfer from one track to another. Ambassadors and Ministers would be drawn from every personnel track, from other agencies, from the Council’s staff, and from private life. Corresponding organizational changes would be made in Defense, Treasury, CIA, and other agencies concerned with foreign affairs.

The effect of this reorganization would be to raise policy planning, assignment of resource priorities, and program co-ordination to a supra-agency level, and these would be the main responsibilities of the new Secretary for National Security Affairs and Foreign Affairs Council. Responsibility for program execution would, however, stay decentralized in the existing departments and agencies, as required by law. Skillfully managed, the Council and Staff would close the present gap between policy formation and program execution. If successful, the new system would provide the Presidents of the nineteen seventies with a foreign policy machinery capable of integrating all the diverse elements of statecraft into a coherent, unified whole and responding with delicacy and vigor to the exigencies of the times.


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