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Exclusive: The Aspen Institute’s Walter Isaacson Interviews Admiral Michael S. Rogers from the Cambridge Cyber Summit Today

WHEN: Today, Wednesday, October 5th

Following is the unofficial transcript of an EXCLUSIVE interview with Admiral Michael S. Rogers, Commander, U.S. Cyber Command; Director, National Security Agency; Chief, Central Security Service, live from the Cambridge Cyber Summit hosted by The Aspen Institute, CNBC and MIT on Wednesday, October 5th.

Mandatory credit: The Cambridge Cyber Summit hosted by The Aspen Institute, CNBC and MIT.

WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you. Thank you very much, Michael, for being with us today. The latest of these is Yahoo, in which supposedly a lot was just read because they were ordered to do so. I just got a statement from them, an email, saying, no, no it wasn't really that way. We did not open up all of the emails. It was a much narrower complying with orders. Talk to us about the type of things you need to do and have industry cooperate with you, why that's legal and where you think we have to draw the line.

ADMIRAL ROGERS: So clearly we have a legal framework in this nation that enables the government under specific ‑‑ for specific reasons, under specific conditions, to make a case before a judge in which we're able to show a judge we have reason to believe that there is threat here to the United States associated with specific individuals and a judge grants, simplistically, authority for a specific purpose for a specific period of time to access data. And the court order is then given to the private sector to execute. This is done ‑‑ phone records, bank records, this is a long‑standing mechanism in our nation for how does the government access information using a lawful mechanism to do that. Cyber and intelligence, in this aspect, is no different then.

WALTER ISAACSON: Let me make sure I heard you correctly. That means you couldn't get one that would just blanket look at all emails.

ADMIRAL ROGERS: No. I was going to say, that would be illegal. We don't do that, and no court would ever grant us the authority to do that. We have to make a specific case. And what the court grants is specific authority for a specific period of time for a specific purpose. It's not a blanket, A, just everything.

WALTER ISAACSON: So we shouldn't believe the stories that we read?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: I've read this real quickly and I thought, well, this is a little speculative.

WALTER ISAACSON: Now, do you need cooperation from the big companies, in Silicon Valley, especially on encryption, and are you getting that cooperation?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: I think particularly on the defensive side, as a nation, is we're trying to figure out, so how are we going to ensure that our systems, our data, are secure. The sweet spot to me is how do we create a partnership between the private sector and the government where the best of both are brought together for a unified purpose. Because I don't think asking the private sector to do this by themselves ‑‑ I don't think it's particularly realistic and is not going to generate the outcomes we want. I would argue, as well, turning to the government and saying, "Well, you just defend the private sector on your own," I don't think that's workable. It's our ability to bring these two parties and their different perspectives together in a common framework that enables us, I think, to get to where ultimately we need to be.

WALTER ISAACSON: And you said we have for 240 years of framework, it's a pretty simple one, which is unreasonable search. I've heard you talk about that. It used to be that nothing, anything, the trunk of your car, your safe deposit box, your diary, nothing was out of the reach of law if a court said it could be searched. Why did that change recently? And is that a problem?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: I think a lot of factors are coming together. I think we have to acknowledge that right now as a society we have broad distrust, in some ways, of the mechanisms and the structures of government and governance. Those structures within our nation that we have traditionally given responsibility ‑‑ law enforcement, intelligence ‑‑ oversight that we have traditionally given responsibility to execute some of these functions. I think we have to acknowledge we're living in a world now in which some of those mechanisms are not trusted. If you go back, much of the framework, the court, FISA court, congressional oversight to HSPCI and SSCI, the two congressional committees that conduct oversight, for example, for intelligence purposes, all created in the late 1970s, in the aftermath of the Pike and the Church Committees in which they came to a couple conclusions. We need to provide a legal framework for the intelligence organizations of the U.S. government to execute their operations so they're not acting indiscriminately.

Secondly, we need to provide a level of oversight so that the citizens of the nation have some level of awareness of what they are doing, why they are doing it. But at the same time we need to do it in a way that doesn't compromise what they're doing. Thus, was born the idea of, hey, Congress is the elected representatives of our citizens. We'll execute this oversight function in the name of the citizens, and thus was born the two oversight committees.

It's 40 years later now. And what I try to tell our team is we've got to step back, you guys, and ask ourselves, so that quirk structure that we've created, how is it viewed today by the citizens of our country. We have to acknowledge it's a slightly different construct. The government makes an argument before the FISA court, and the judge shares the argument and the judge makes the decision, do they agree? Do they disagree? Have we met the threshold of evidentiary proof? Likewise, the oversight committees, in a time in which, again, I think we have to be honest, Congress, as in many other institutions, is not quite held in the same regard as it was potentially in the aftermath of Watergate, where Congress was viewed as, hey, look, you took a proactive role, you took on the Executive Branch, and you generated insights that help our nation understand some activity that was truly of concern to us.

You fast‑forward 40 years, I would argue we're in a very different place now. It's just not the broad view that most ‑‑ not all, at least many citizens take.

So I think part of our challenge going forward is how do we create oversight mechanisms that enable intelligence, law enforcement, to do their important duties in a way that both engenders confidence for the citizens we serve but at the same time acknowledges in order to do this, we can't just publicly get into the details of everything we do. Because not only are citizens with a very lawful concern paying attention, but the very targets we're trying to access, they're paying attention as well. And they want to know, How are they coming after me? What are the sources they're using to generate insights, if I'm ISIL, if I'm a foreign state, they're very much interested in? So what are the intelligence? How are they doing what they do? That's not really what we want to give up.

WALTER ISAACSON: Do you think that private companies should be allowed to create devices and services that are designed specifically to thwart the reach of the courts?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: Let's ask an easy question.

WALTER ISAACSON: And, by the way, you've talked to Tim Cook about it. Tell me what you said to him.

ADMIRAL ROGERS: I'm not going to go into specifics, but, broadly, this is what I say. We have to acknowledge it as a nation we have two incredibly important imperatives here. We must ensure the security and the safety of our citizens while at the same time doing it in a way that does not undermine their rights or our very structures as a government. Because achieving security, in the name of becoming something we're not, is a bad place for us to be as a nation.

Likewise, I would argue, ensuring the protection ‑‑ ensuring the privacy and the rights of our citizens without also providing them security, I would argue that's not a great place for us to be. So, it's how do we find this middle ground. This is a tough challenge for us, because, again, it's happening in a broader context; it's happening in a time when the mechanisms of structure just are largely distrusted.

I'm struck by the fact, for example, phone companies, on a regular basis, are given significant numbers of search warrants to comply with a Federal court that says you must provide the Federal government, under specific circumstances, access to the communications of the phonecalls of the following individuals. And yet, when we use the same process for emails, for example, we're generating a very different reaction as a society. I'm still trying to work my way through personally, what is the difference? What is it that generates a fundamentally different approach?

To go to your initial point to me where, as a nation, we had previously accepted the fundamental premise that nothing is beyond the reach of the government with appropriate protection and appropriate use of the court, a legal framework, the legislative branch. We've generally accepted that as a fundamental premise, and yet we seem to be in a different place now where, in some areas, we're not quite as comfortable. And I'm still trying to work my way through it. So in my conversations with my private‑sector teammates, I go: We've got to have this conversation. We cannot vilify each other. It isn't one side is good and one side is bad. We're trying to make sure that these two incredibly foundational imperatives for us as a country are executed in a way that the one doesn't undermine the other. And that's not an easy challenge.

I think lastly ‑‑ I apologize for going on so long for you. But we have to acknowledge we're currently in a place where technology has outstripped our legal and our policy framework. And we've got to ask ourselves: How do we address that? Are we comfortable with that? That's not something that you want guys like me deciding. That's something I think more broadly we, as a society, have to have a conversation about, what are we comfortable with here, and not just vilify each other, one side's good and other side is bad. That's just so simplistic, and it isn't going to let us get to solutions; because in the end, we have to generate solutions, I think.

WALTER ISAACSON: As part of both the NSA and especially cyber commander protecting both the defense department but in general the critical infrastructure, what authority ‑‑ if, on the day running up to election day, there were large amounts of hacking and traffic and malware and denial of service attacks coming from a country like Russia, as we've already seen them come in on places, do you have the authority right now, or what type of authority would you need to A, defend against those attacks; and B, if necessary, retaliate against the attacks, if for example, some actor decided to wipe out the voter registration rolls of Miami, Cleveland and Philadelphia?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: So, right now as the commander of the United States Cyber Command, and as the director of the National Security Agency, do I have the authority to unilaterally access U.S. systems? No, I cannot do that.

And in the scenario that you highlight, where potentially we might be looking at a penetration, major damage, we have a structure and a process within the government where, in this case, either state, local, or private would approach the government looking for a system, we ‑‑ both Cyber Command and NSA ‑‑ would be part of a broader government effort to provide that. There's no simple, single rule that fits all. So, it's a case‑by‑case, specifics of a case‑by‑case. That's one of the challenges for some people I see in cyber where they will say to me: Well, I'm a little confused why we act this way in this situation and we act a very different way in another situation. I say: That's an appropriate approach to me because it's not one size fits all.

It's no different than ‑‑ excuse me ‑‑ in the application of kinetic force, for example, as a military guy. It isn't one size fits all. We tailor our rules of engagement, we tailor the decisions we make to the specifics of a particular incident or event, and we respond in a very discreet and appropriate way. Not, hey, it's the same thing no matter what happens.

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, let me just ask a question. You say people keep asking you about a problem, which is, you acted in a very specific way ‑‑ well, not you but the government ‑‑ with the Sony hack. You named who it was, you shamed them, you put sanctions on and for all we know, you may have done other things that were covert. With the Chinese, there were some indictments against PLA members.

With the Russians, you haven't done anything that we've known. Why not? Is it because you don't know that it's the Russians doing this to our various electoral systems in Illinois or DNC?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: So, first, that's a broader policy issue. I've got to acknowledge, hey, look, I'm a military guy. But ‑‑ so I'd make a couple points, Walter, based on what you just said. First, I think it's important we made a decision on the basis of the specifics in each of those scenarios. In one case, we opted to go with a very public, both acknowledgment of the activity, naming of the actor who did it, in this case the North Koreans, as well as specific actions we're going to take in response.

With our Chinese counterparts, we've opted to engage in a long‑term ongoing dialogue about what our concerns are to try to identify the behaviors we find objectionable and to try to highlight through specific legal means, in this case, highlighting and indicting five specific individuals, here are concrete examples that we believe meet a legal threshold that would highlight the sorts of activity that we believe are unacceptable.

In the case of the Russia piece, I would just argue, look, this is an ongoing issue, so I'm not going to get into specifics. Let's wait and see how this plays out a little bit and don't just assume that because you haven't seen anything broadly, that it doesn't mean that there isn't activity ongoing. And we'll just let this play out a little bit.

WALTER ISAACSON: And if at some point there is activity ongoing, is there an advantage to being public with that?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: It depends on the scenario. If you look at Sony, for example, so that's November of 2014 ‑‑ it's hard to believe we're coming up on two years since the North Korean attack against Sony. At the time, my input ‑‑ and I'm just one person in the process. I had a couple of concerns. I said, number one, this is so public that we just can't put our head in the sand and pretend it's not happening.

Secondly, if I'm in the private sector and I see this kind of activity ‑‑ because it's directed at the private sector in this case, Sony, a private company ‑‑ hey government, if you're not going to do something here, then my option as the private sector is should I draw the conclusion that that means I need to do something and that I shouldn't look to the government in this case? That was an important part for me of the Sony piece. I thought not only did we want to send a very clear message to the North Koreans, but I thought we also wanted to send a very clear signal to our own private sector about, hey, the government would be willing to stand up under specific conditions and highlight unacceptable behavior and try to bring the capabilities of the government to bear to stop that from happening again. I think that's a positive for us as a nation. I think the approach we've taken with China has been effective to date. I'm not going to argue it's perfect, but it's enabled us to continue moving forward in a dialogue and to agree to changes in behavior. We'll see how this plays out over time. But those are all positives.

WALTER ISAACSON: Can I just drill down right there? What changes in behavior have you seen on China?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: Well, remember, the specific agreement on the 25th of September, 2015. So, again, it's hard to believe we're slightly over a year from there. Can you tell ‑‑

WALTER ISAACSON: Time flies when you're having fun.

ADMIRAL ROGERS: ‑‑ I'm a happily married guy? I love dates.

What we agreed to there with them was, look, we acknowledge that nation states use cyber as a tool to generate insights as to what others in the world around us are doing. The difference of opinion that we had with the Chinese counterparts was, look, in the U.S. structure we do not take the mechanisms of government, intelligence structures, the military, we don't use those as a vehicle to access the private sector and other companies and other countries for the express purpose of then taking that data, providing it to the private sector in the United States to gain competitive economic damage. We don't do that. In our structure there's a large firewall between what the private sector does when it competes economically and what the role of the government is in that competitive process. We draw a strong firewall there.

Our concern with the Chinese was we don't see that same differentiation in your behavior. We see you penetrating U.S. private systems and then sharing that data with your companies to give them competitive advantage. Look, that is unacceptable to us. And so both of the leaders ‑‑ as I said a year ago, in the aftermath of the visit between the two presidents in Washington, came out and said: Hey, look, this is unacceptable behavior, and both nations agree we will not engage in that behavior.

WALTER ISAACSON: Are we having those conversations with the Russians?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: Slightly different structure there, I would argue. Again, everything is a case‑by‑case basis. The challenge set there is a little different. It's not quite the same.

WALTER ISAACSON: Do you consider our election infrastructure part of our critical infrastructure the way the electricity grid is?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: It's interesting. I think we need to step back and redefine a little bit just what does the idea of critical infrastructure mean in the 21st century? We traditionally have tended to look at it along very industrial lines. Does the segment produce an industrial output of significance to our nation: air travel, finance, petroleum distribution?

In the world that we're living in now, I think another thing we need to think about when we're trying to define what is critical infrastructure for me is the whole idea of data. When I look at the election structure, I go, look, that is the protection of data in the form of votes in the electoral college. What are the implications for us? Because, quite frankly, I don't think any of us really put a lot of time thinking, boy, would somebody ever contest, you know, the infrastructure associated with our election process? But clearly we are moving into a world in which, seemingly ‑‑ and you can pick any media outlet any day, every day we're watching major cyber penetrations, theft, extraction of data on a global basis. And we're entering a world where literally nothing seems to be beyond the reach or intent of someone out there to try to access it and often for a variety of purposes: economic advantage, intelligence, embarrassment.

WALTER ISAACSON: Do you see those things changing? In other words, it used to be for economic benefit and now, at least what we're seeing recently, it's just to sow doubt and mess up an election system.

ADMIRAL ROGERS: I mean, there's an aspect of it there. I also remind people, look, if you look at the totality of activity out there, the criminal segment is still the greatest majority. Probably ‑‑ depending on the source you want to use, probably 65% of the total cyber activity of concern that you see out in the Worldwide Web today is largely criminal, groups, individual actors using cyber, using the web as a vehicle to gain access to data which they then turn around for economic advantage. Hey, we sold credit card numbers. We sold social security numbers. We sell identities.

WALTER ISAACSON: That 65% is stable, or has it gone up or down?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: It's been pretty ‑‑ the last thing ‑‑ because I'd be the first to admit it, it's not the biggest focus for me. It seems to be pretty stable in terms of a percentage, but I will say that the capabilities of some of the criminal actors that you see today ‑‑ I mean, this is money. So it's not surprising: Where you find money, you find people willing to make investment and willing to generate capability, and the criminal segment sadly is no different. There's a lot of money out there, and so you see a lot of groups really upping their game in terms of what they're capable of doing.

WALTER ISAACSON: If we don't either name, shame, or retaliate or do something with, say, the Russians, if they're the ones messing with our election system, do you assume they'll do it to the German elections next?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: Well, the way I phrase it is don't look for this to be isolated behavior.

WALTER ISAACSON: In other words, yes?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: Yeah. Look for this ‑‑ I won't go to the specifics of a country, but my comment would be look for this sort of behavior to continue. And I think that goes to the broad question we're all trying to grapple with. So how do we change the dynamic to get to a place where behavior like this is unacceptable or is perceived to be of such a risk that you don't want to engage in it? And clearly, we're just not there today and that's not a good thing for us.

WALTER ISAACSON: And so we're not there today because we haven't been able to name or we haven't been able to retaliate or we don't have the rules of the road? What should we be doing?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: So my first comment is there's no silver bullet here. It's going to be a combination of how do we make it much more difficult for nations, actors, individuals to be able to successfully penetrate systems. You know, one of our challenges is we are dealing with literally trillions of sunk costs in the form of investments that are out there today, and our network structures and our data flow and our infrastructure, the way it's built, the way it's designed, much of it, most of it was built in a time in which redundancy, resiliency and defensibility were just not core design characteristics. Simplistically it was about, how do you achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness at the lowest price point?

And so we have built structures over the decades that were never built for this kind of dynamic, this kind of environment where you have a wide range of actors attempting to penetrate them for a variety of purposes. To date, those purposes have largely been the extraction of information. But what happens when it's not just about extracting data and information anymore? What happens when it's about manipulating data so that you can't trust what you're looking at? Think about how that would shape our choices, our decisions as consumers, as businesses, as military individuals. If I couldn't believe the kind of picture that I'm looking at of an environment that enables me as a military commander to start to make risk‑based decisions to try to gain advantage and forestall what an opponent is doing, if I lost that ability and instead I'm looking at a picture that's totally false and, in fact, is leading me to make choices that are not helping me, they're helping the opponent, in fact, they're undermining me, that's a bad place.

What happens when we get to the point where some non‑state actors, let's take ISIL as an example, decide that the Worldwide Web offers not just the opportunity to spread the ideology, to recruit, to coordinate among geographically dispersed entities, to generate revenue ‑‑ what happens when they decide, this is a weapons system, this is a vulnerability, hey, we can exploit this? My concern is this is going to happen. It's the when to me, not the if. And most ‑‑ and I apologize. I'll just finish real quick. Most nation states, while they want to gain an advantage, they are unwilling to destroy the status quo as the price of gaining the advantage. I look at a non‑state actor like ISIL and I think they have no desire to preserve the status quo. They have no desire to protect the mechanisms of stability that have engendered our ability to create these amazing global inter‑connectivities and this amazing structure that we have. They have no interest in preserving that. That's not their vision.

WALTER ISAACSON: So if that's the case, is it that our ‑‑ are our offensive capabilities against ISIL not as much of a deterrent as in the old days when our intermediate‑range nuclear missiles were a deterrent against an invasion across Europe? In other words, what type of cyber offense comes out of Fort Mead to an ISIL?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: So, I'm not going to get into the specifics. We have publicly acknowledged as a department that cyber command, as a DOD operational entity, is employing cyber in an offensive capability in Syria and Iraq against ISIL. I'm not going to get into the specifics of the how or the what. But one of my takeaways I hope people will draw from this is we have publicly acknowledged, now that we've been doing this for months, we've been able to do this in a very targeted, very focused way, in a very proportionate way.

So you haven't heard, you know, Oh, my God, look at what they're doing against civilian infrastructure, look at what they're doing against ‑‑ that's impacting NGOs in the space. We have tried to be very precise, very measured, very discreet. Because we are aware, hey, look, there's second and third implications here that we need to be mindful of. And so, you know, that's something that I feel very good about. We've been able to show that we can execute and use these sorts of offensive capabilities. We can have impact. We can do it in a way that doesn't cause fratricide with very legitimate second and third parties that are operating in the same space.

WALTER ISAACSON: For that to happen, you need to have cyber command, which is an operational division, and you do have it, very closely linked physically, both under your hat ‑‑ because you have two hats ‑‑ with the NSA, the intelligence gathering. There are proposals to separate, compartmentalize, as opposed to integrate more, to take them apart more. I know that's a big political discussion that will be ongoing. But what cautions would you give the next administration about answering that question, should we separate cyber command from NSA?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: First, clearly an ongoing discussion. We routinely, as an organization, assess our structures the way we're organized. That's nothing new. We do this all the time much more broadly across the department. Hey, that's perfectly appropriate. You always want to ask yourself: Are the assumptions that we made in the past still valid today? Is the structure and the processes we picked that we have created to generate cyber outcomes, do they still make sense? As we're working our way through this, you know, my points have been in the long run, I acknowledge, I think this is the right thing to do as cyber command gains more capability, as cyber command gains more capacity. I believe that in the long run, we want to keep these two organizations closely aligned. But we're probably going to want to get to a position where cyber command is able to act a little bit more on its own. And, quite frankly, part of it is just the human dynamic. These are two very ‑‑ I'm the first to acknowledge, these are two demanding sets of responsibilities. But on the other hand, I've also argued you don't want to do anything so precipitously that you end up incurring risk that you don't have to. I'm getting some broader policy decision. We'll work our way through the how, the if, the when. You know, there's some smart people looking at this. This is not something that's going to be done casually.

WALTER ISAACSON: The issue of end‑to‑end encryption, how bad is that for you, really?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: Now, it varies. If you are a law enforcement entity, a local sheriff, the FBI, encryption puts you in a very tough spot. You do not have the technical means, and you don't have the legal means to overcome it. So you are trying to figure out, I got a device, the potential has evidence related to exploitation of youth, crime, violence, guns, weapons, terrorism. And in many cases, these days, you increasingly find yourself unable to access it.

For the National Security Agency, the intelligence structure is a little different for us. We operate in foreign space, number one. So we have some legal options that are available to us that are domestic. Law enforcement teammates do not. Secondly, we've got a set of tools that we can look at more broadly. So my input to this has been, for us, this has had impact. That impact will grow over time. It's going to get worse, not better. That while many people, for example, will talk to me about the power of metadata. I'm like, Hey, look, I spent a lot of time on the bar in metadata. I don't disagree. But another thing I try to remind people is the goal ‑‑ let's talk about terrorism, where this really is starting to come to the fore, that's the one that's really driving this in some ways right now. Because you are watching groups that we know are attempting to conduct attacks in the United States, that have done attacks in western Europe, and they are using these tools to coordinate among each other and to move people, move money, move explosives.

WALTER ISAACSON: "These tools" means like an application, encryption? And you lose them and they go dark to you and you can't follow them?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: It depends on the scenario, specifically. But they clearly are aware of the technical limitations here, and they are trying to take advantage of that.

For us, the point I'm trying to make is, our goal is not to be in a position to respond in the aftermath of an attack. Is that part of our job? Yes. But the goal we're constantly striving for is to get ahead of the problem set and stop events from happening before they even occur. To do that, in my experience, you fundamentally have to get the content. Metadata won't tell you, so who are the specific actors here that I need to roll up? How many parts of the network are truly involved in this? What exactly is the target? How are they going to do this? Is it explosives, is it weapons, is it vehicles? Where is the target? You don't get all that from metadata, for example. So increasingly the challenge for law enforcement, for us is, how do you access content in a way that both protects the rights of lawful citizens but at the same time enables us to generate the insight that those citizens are counting on to help ensure their security and their safety?

WALTER ISAACSON: And if you could pick ‑‑ this is my last question ‑‑ one thing that Congress could pass that would get that balance right on that most important issue, let's keep it focused on possible use by terrorists of communications, what would you ask for?

ADMIRAL ROGERS: I say this to my congressional counterparts when I get asked: Help to try to create an environment in which we can have a meaningful dialogue about how we're going to deal with this.

Because I am a little concerned. My argument would be, you don't want us, intelligence or law enforcement, jamming a solution down your throat. I would argue, you don't want the private sector doing this unilaterally. How can we come together and bring the best of our nation? I say this out in the valley all the time: You are about the power of potential. You are the greatest innovative engine. You represent much, much broader than just the valley. You are the visible face of one of the most powerful innovative engines on this planet and in the history of this world.

As a society, traditionally, America is all about "can do." And I hear us right now spending a lot of time about "can't do." And the frustration for me is, can't we harness the power, the insight, the knowledge, the innovative approaches of the private sector, and the knowledge and skills of the government to come together and to key up options for our citizens to decide what are they comfortable with that would enable us to address this very important and fundamental issue? It goes to this mismatch about our legal framework and the state of technology.

WALTER ISAACSON: Admiral Mike Rogers, thank you very much for being with us.

ADMIRAL ROGERS: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.

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