Waymo testing self-driving car ride service in Arizona | Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO Alphabet Inc’s Waymo autonomous vehicle group will begin testing a self-driving car program for hundreds of families in Phoenix, Arizona and is buying 500 Chrysler minivans to do so, the companies said on Tuesday.

Waymo, which along with Google is owned by Alphabet Inc(GOOGL.O), recently has been quietly testing the service for a handful of families, learning what potential customers would want from a ride service, the company said in a blog post.

It urged people to apply to take part in an expanded test, which is the first public trial of Waymo’s self-driving cars. The vehicles include human operators from Waymo behind the wheel, in case intervention is required and to take feedback.

Silicon Valley is racing to master self-driving technology, betting that it will transform the auto industry and be a gold mine for leading companies. Waymo has one of the best technology track records, and it has an alliance with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCHA.MI).

Many companies expect that customers will use autonomous vehicles as a service, rather than owning them outright. Ride service Uber in particular expects to use autonomous cars.

The new Waymo test in Arizona is meant to help the company understand what people want out of self-driving cars and see how they use and integrate the service. Testers will get access every day at any time.

Waymo already has with 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans and is acquiring five times more, partly to be able to support the service.

(Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Mary Milliken)

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Trump pushes Democrats on border wall as government shutdown looms | Reuters

By Ayesha Rascoe and Richard Cowan
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON U.S. President Donald Trump tried to press Democrats on Monday to include funds for his controversial border wall with Mexico in spending legislation as lawmakers worked to avoid a looming shutdown of the federal government.

The battle offers the Republican president, whose approval ratings have slid since he took office, a chance to score his first big legislative win or to be mired in a Washington stalemate as he marks 100 days in the job on Saturday.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress, but a White House-backed bill to gut former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, failed to gather full party support and imploded last month.

If no deal is agreed on spending, parts of the federal government will shut down at 12:01 a.m. (0401 GMT) on Saturday.

In the past, such shutdowns have generally been averted through passage of funding measures known as continuing resolutions. But in 2013, conservative Republicans forced a 17-day shutdown in a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare.

When funds abruptly halt, hundreds of thousands of the country’s several million federal employees are temporarily laid off, while those in jobs deemed essential such as law enforcement are expected to keep working in the hope that they will receive back-pay. Non-essential sectors such as national parks are liable to be closed and programs such as federally funded medical research grind to a halt.

Trump’s demand that Congress include funds for the construction of the wall, a key theme of his 2016 presidential campaign, remains a White House priority, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

“The president has made very clear that he’s got two priorities in this continuing resolution: No. 1, the increase in funding for the military and No. 2, for our homeland security and the wall,” Spicer told reporters.

The White House is confident in the direction of the talks and an announcement is expected soon, Spicer said, although he declined to say specifically whether Trump would sign a bill that did not contain money for border security and the wall.

A funding bill will need 60 votes to clear the 100-member Senate, where Republicans hold 52 seats, meaning at least some Democrats will have to get behind it.

Trump, who argues that a wall is necessary to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into the United States, said in a Twitter message earlier on Monday that “If … the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be!”

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, calling the wall “a pointless waste of taxpayer money,” said on Monday that illegal drugs would still flow into the United States via tunnels and vehicle traffic.

He repeated an assertion made last week that bipartisan negotiations in Congress were going well until the White House began demanding money for the wall as a condition for accepting a funding bill.

WALL FUNDS

Trump has said Mexico will repay the United States for the wall if Congress funds it first. But the Mexican government is adamant it will not provide any financing and Trump has not laid out a plan to compel Mexico to pay. Department of Homeland Security internal estimates have placed the total cost of a border barrier at about $21.6 billion.

Aside from inflaming relations with a major trading partner, the planned wall has angered Democrats. They showed no sign of softening their opposition on Monday and sought to place responsibility for any shutdown squarely on Trump and congressional Republicans.

Republican aides in Congress provided no timetable for the unveiling of a bill to fund the government from April 28 to Sept. 30.

One senior Republican congressional aide said that if not enough progress is made by Thursday, Congress would likely have to try to push forward a stop-gap spending bill to keep the government operating. Leading Democrats have said they would support such a measure only if there was progress in the talks.

Failure to approve a government funding bill could throw new doubts over Republicans’ ability to fashion a budget blueprint for the fiscal year that starts on Oct. 1 or to succeed in a major effort to cut corporate and individual taxes that Trump has touted.

A Republican congressional aide said over the weekend that Democrats may agree to some aspects of the border wall, including new surveillance equipment and access roads, estimated to cost around $380 million. “But Democrats want the narrative that they dealt him a loss on the wall,” the aide said.

Trump is dangling the prospect of funding some elements of Obamacare in exchange for Democrats’ support in the spending talks, while goading opponents with predictions of the imminent demise of Obama’s signature domestic achievement, which enabled millions more Americans to secure healthcare coverage.

“ObamaCare is in a death spiral!” he said in another tweet on Monday.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley and Ayesha Rascoe; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu and Richard Cowan; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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Arkansas plans to execute two convicts Monday | Reuters

A flurry of last-minute legal appeals at both the state and federal level are expected, though their likelihood of success may have diminished with the recent appointment of conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The high court cleared the way last week for Arkansas to hold its first execution in 12 years and the state carried out the death penalty on convicted murderer Ledell Lee.

Jack Jones, sentenced in 1996 for raping and strangling Mary Phillips and attempting to murder her 11-year-old daughter, is scheduled to be put to death at 7 p.m at the Cummins Unit prison, about 75 miles southeast of the state capital of Little Rock. Jones was also convicted of rape and murder in Florida.

At 8:15 p.m., the state is tentatively scheduled to execute Marcel Williams, who was sentenced to death in 1997 for kidnapping, raping and murdering Stacy Errickson. He also abducted and raped two other women.

The last time a state executed two inmates on the same day was 2000 in Texas.

The condemned pair were among eight inmates that Arkansas had initially planned to execute in the span of 11 days, a compressed schedule prompted by the impending expiration date of supplies of a sedative used as part of the three-drug lethal injection process.

The drug in question, midazolam, was employed in flawed executions in Oklahoma and Arizona, where witnesses said the inmates writhed in apparent pain on the gurney. No problems were reported in Lee’s execution on Thursday.

Four of the planned executions have already been placed on hold by court order.

The unprecedented schedule generated a wave of criticism and legal challenges, including a lawsuit from the company that makes one of the drugs. The company claimed that the state obtained its supplies under false pretenses, but the state’s Supreme Court threw out that lawsuit last week.

On Friday, a federal judge in Little Rock rejected an appeal from Jones and Williams that obesity and related conditions made it more likely that midazolam would fail to render them unconscious.

More court challenges are a virtual certainty as the hour of execution approaches.

(Additional reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Arkansas; Editing by David Gregorio)

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American Airlines apologizes for onboard clash over stroller | Reuters

By Barbara Goldberg
| NEW YORK

NEW YORK American Airlines (AAL.O) on Saturday apologized to a female passenger and suspended an employee after a video showing an onboard clash over a baby stroller went viral, in the latest embarrassment for a U.S. carrier over how it treated a customer.

The clip, posted on Facebook on Friday by a bystander aboard the flight, shows a woman in tears with a young child in her arms, and a man emerging from his seat to confront a male flight attendant who apparently wrested the stroller from the woman.

Facebook user Surain Adyanthaya, who posted the video, wrote that the flight attendant had forcefully taken the stroller, hitting the woman with it and just missing her child. That sequence of events did not appear on the clip.

What it shows is the unidentified man standing up and yelling at the flight attendant: “You do that to me and I’ll knock you flat.”

The crew member then points his finger angrily and challenges the passenger to hit him. The video shows the man eventually returning to his seat.

American Airlines said in a statement it was investigating the incident, which took place before the plane took off on a flight from San Francisco to Dallas.

“We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident,” the airline said in a statement released early on Saturday.

The woman elected to take another flight and was upgraded to first class, said American.

The treatment of passengers by the airline industry returned as a national issue after a video appeared online two weeks ago showing a 69-year-old passenger being dragged off a United Airlines (UAL.N) flight to make room for a crew member. The fracas sparked international outrage and policy changes by the airline.

A passenger who posted a description of the latest incident on the website Reddit wrote that the flight attendant early on called for security to intervene in his dispute with the woman.

Bob Ross, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union, which represents American Airlines workers, said in a statement that tight schedules, overcrowded planes, shrinking seats and limited overhead bin space have made it difficult for flight attendants to board passengers.

“All of these factors are related to corporate decisions beyond the control of passengers and flight attendants,” Ross said.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Ruthy Munoz in Houston)

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Trump visits wounded U.S. service members at military hospital | Reuters

By Patrick Rucker
| BETHESDA, Md.

BETHESDA, Md. President Donald Trump visited wounded U.S. service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Saturday, his first visit as president to the armed forces hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington.

Accompanied by his wife, Melania, Trump awarded Army Sergeant First Class Alvaro Barrientos the Purple Heart, the medal given to members of the U.S. military wounded or killed in battle.

Barrientos was injured in Afghanistan on March 17 when an Afghan soldier opened fire inside a base in Helmand province, wounding three U.S. soldiers. Barrientos’s right leg was amputated, according to a White House official.

The president put his hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and kissed the sergeant’s wife, Tammy, on the cheek. Then he pinned the Purple Heart to the sergeant’s lapel and clapped him on the back.

“When I heard about this, I wanted to do it myself. … Congratulations, tremendous,” Trump told Barrientos.

During his eight years as president, Barack Obama made visits to Walter Reed a regular occurrence, particularly when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging. He ended up visiting the hospital more than 20 times.

While this was Trump’s first visit there, he did make a trip to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in February to honor a service member killed during an operation in Yemen.

Trump is spending the weekend in rainy Washington. He has recently been criticized for his frequent trips to his Florida resort, Mar-A-Lago, which Democrats say are costing taxpayers millions of dollars for travel and security.

Leaving the White House, Trump’s motorcade passed dozens of protesters gathered along its route holding signs for a March for Science being held in downtown Washington, one of series of such Earth Day events being held across the country.

(Additional reporting by Jim Oliphant and Ginger Gibson; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

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Thousands turn out for March for Science in U.S. cities | Reuters

By Lacey Ann Johnson
| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Thousands of scientists and people from other walks of life turned out in Washington and New York on Saturday for Earth Day events that organizers have framed a “celebration” of science to counter a growing disregard for evidence-based knowledge.

March for Science, which includes “teach-ins” on the National Mall and parades in midtown Manhattan and hundreds of other cities and towns, is billed as non-partisan, aimed at reaffirming “the vital role science plays in our democracy,” according to the march’s website.

Even so, the marches were effectively protests against steep cuts that President Donald Trump has proposed for federal science and research budgets and his administration’s skepticism about climate change and the need to slow global warming.

“It’s important to show this administration that we care about facts,” said Chris Taylor, 24, who was part of an early crowd of about 2,000 who gathered on the Mall for teach-ins on topics like climate change, water quality and sustainable food.

“It just seems like they’re not really concerned about economic growth or creating new technologies, just catering to massive corporations,” said Taylor, who is earning a PhD in robotics at George Mason University in Virginia.

March for Science is the latest in a series of national demonstrations that have been staged since Trump’s inauguration nearly 100 days ago. Previous marches and protests have focused on a range of partisan issues, from abortion rights to immigration policy.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday’s marches. However, in the past, Trump has said climate change was a hoax that was stifling policies to foster economic growth.

His administration is considering withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, a global accord aimed at reducing global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Last year the United States, under President Barack Obama, joined more than 190 other countries in signing the pact.

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget calls for deep spending cuts by government science agencies, including a 31 percent reduction for the Environmental Protection Agency.

March organizers are also worried by what they see as growing skepticism from politicians and others on topics such as vaccinations, genetically modified organisms and evolution.

The direct involvement by the scientific community in a national policy debate has stirred some criticism about whether scientists should get involved in politics. But organizers have defended the march as crucial because of the threat posed by discrediting scientific consensus and restricting research.

“As scientists, as human beings, our mandate is clear – it’s to stand up for what we know to be true,” said Kellan Baker, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and one of the speakers on the National Mall.

That theme was echoed by many of those who showed up in Washington for teach-ins, which organizers said were a centerpiece of the initial Earth Day held in 1970 to call attention to the environment.

“Science isn’t respected and it needs to be,” said Sarah Binkow, 22, a civil engineer who traveled from Pontiac, Michigan, to attend the Washington rally.

“Being here definitely gives me hope that there’s this overwhelming population that supports science and supports scientific theory,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Frank McGurty in New York; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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Wildfire threatens 2,000 homes in southwest Florida | Reuters

The wildfire has charred about 4,800 acres (1,942 hectares) in Collier County and forced residents to evacuate their houses in the Golden Gate Estates area of Naples, Clark Ryals, a senior forester for the Florida Forest Service, said by telephone. The blaze was only 10 percent contained.

Nine homes were destroyed by the fire, Ryals said at a news conference later on Friday evening. One person suffered minor injuries in the fire.

“These wildfires are dangerous and if you’re within the evacuation area, do not stay in your home,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said in a statement after meeting with fire officials in the area.

Some people have resisted calls to leave their homes, Chief Kingman Schuldt of the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District said.

“Unfortunately we still have a lot of people in their homes in the evacuation areas and I would stress they do need to evacuate,” Schuldt told members of the media on Friday evening.

The fire, which erupted on Thursday, is consuming palmetto trees and grasses.

A smaller wildfire also broke out in Collier County on Thursday and spread across 350 acres (142 hectares). It has since been completely contained.

About 200 firefighters are working to stop the growth of the two blazes, which are about a mile apart. The governor, aside from deploying Florida National Guard troops, said he also authorized the use of five UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to aid the effort.

The latest blazes follow a spate of other wildfires that have burned this month in drought-parched Florida, which prompted Scott to declare a state of emergency on April 11.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, additional reporting by Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jacqueline Wong)

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Ex-Illinois Governor Blagojevich’s 14-year prison term upheld | Reuters

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago rejected arguments by Blagojevich, who has already served more than five years in prison, that a lesser punishment was justified because of his behavior in prison, and because some of the counts on which he was originally convicted had been thrown out.

Leonard Goodman, a lawyer for Blagojevich, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Blagojevich, 60, had been convicted in 2011 and sentenced to the 14-year term for abusing his powers as governor, including by trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barack Obama after he won the 2008 presidential election.

In 2015, the appeals court threw out five of the 18 counts on which Blagojevich was convicted and ordered his resentencing.

Last August, however, U.S. District Judge James Zagel reimposed the same sentence, recognizing the pain Blagojevich’s family was suffering but concluding that “the fault lies with the governor.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)

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U.S. regulators block Texas, Arizona over import of execution drug | Reuters

By Jon Herskovitz and Toni Clarke

The Food and Drug Administration notified the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Arizona Department of Corrections that their confiscated shipments of sodium thiopental have been refused on the basis that the detained drugs appear to be unapproved new drugs and misbranded drugs, FDA press officer Lyndsay Meyer said.

Officials in Arizona were not immediately available for comment.

“It has taken almost two years for the Food and Drug Administration to reach a decision, which we believe is flawed. TDCJ fully complied with the steps necessary to lawfully import the shipment,” the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a statement.

“We are exploring all options to remedy the unjustified seizure,” it said.

Arizona officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Texas sued in January for the drug’s release, saying in its lawsuit that it was importing the sodium thiopental for legal executions.

Sodium thiopental renders a person unconscious and was a staple of lethal injection mixes but has not been made in the United States for several years.

“Texas appears to be trying to carve out an exception for this one purpose (using the drug in a lethal injection),” said Megan McCracken, an expert on lethal injection drugs and a professor at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

About six years ago, major pharmaceutical companies began imposing bans on sales of their products for use in executions, which left death penalty states scrambling to come up with new mixes and suppliers.

Many have turned to a less powerful, Valium-like sedative called midazolam to render prisoners unconscious. It has been used in troubled executions in Oklahoma and Arizona where inmates who were supposed to be insensate were seen twisting in pain on death chamber gurneys.

Nebraska, South Dakota, Ohio, Arizona and Texas tried to import sodium thiopental from India between 2010 and 2015, according to court records and news media reports, but federal regulators blocked the moves.

Previous attempts to import the drug have also been blocked by federal courts after challenges from death row inmates. The last major case was decided in 2013.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas and Toni Clarke in Washington; Additional reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in Mumbai; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Exclusive: Putin-linked think tank drew up plan to sway 2016 U.S. election

WASHINGTON A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.

They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies [en.riss.ru/], after the election.

The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin’s office.

The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.

It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.

A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.

The current and former U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the Russian documents’ classified status. They declined to discuss how the United States obtained them. U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them.

Putin has denied interfering in the U.S. election. Putin’s spokesman and the Russian institute did not respond to requests for comment.

The documents were central to the Obama administration’s conclusion that Russia mounted a “fake news” campaign and launched cyber attacks against Democratic Party groups and Clinton’s campaign, the current and former officials said.

“Putin had the objective in mind all along, and he asked the institute to draw him a road map,” said one of the sources, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

Trump has said Russia’s activities had no impact on the outcome of the race. Ongoing congressional and FBI investigations into Russian interference have so far produced no public evidence that Trump associates colluded with the Russian effort to change the outcome of the election.

Four of the officials said the approach outlined in the June strategy paper was a broadening of an effort the Putin administration launched in March 2016. That month the Kremlin instructed state-backed media outlets, including international platforms Russia Today and Sputnik news agency, to start producing positive reports on Trump’s quest for the U.S. presidency, the officials said.

Russia Today did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Sputnik dismissed the assertions by the U.S. officials that it participated in a Kremlin campaign as an “absolute pack of lies.” “And by the way, it’s not the first pack of lies we’re hearing from ‘sources in U.S. official circles’,” the spokesperson said in an email.

PRO-KREMLIN BLOGGERS

Russia Today and Sputnik published anti-Clinton stories while pro-Kremlin bloggers prepared a Twitter campaign calling into question the fairness of an anticipated Clinton victory, according to a report by U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the election made public in January. [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

Russia Today’s most popular Clinton video – “How 100% of the 2015 Clintons’ ‘charity’ went to … themselves” – accumulated 9 millions views on social media, according to the January report. [bit.ly/2os8wIt]

The report said Russia Today and Sputnik “consistently cast president elect-Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional media outlets.”

The report said the agencies did not assess whether Moscow’s effort had swung the outcome of the race in Trump’s favor, because American intelligence agencies do not “analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.” [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]

CYBER ATTACKS

Neither of the Russian institute documents mentioned the release of hacked Democratic Party emails to interfere with the U.S. election, according to four of the officials. The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin.

The overt propaganda and covert hacking efforts reinforced each other, according to the officials. Both Russia Today and Sputnik heavily promoted the release of the hacked Democratic Party emails, which often contained embarrassing details.

Five of the U.S. officials described the institute as the Kremlin’s in-house foreign policy think tank.

The institute’s director when the documents were written, Leonid Reshetnikov, rose to the rank of lieutenant general during a 33-year-career in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to the institute’s website [bit.ly/2oVhiCF]. After Reshetnikov retired from the institute in January, Putin named as his replacement Mikhail Fradkov. The institute says he served as the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service from 2007 to 2016. [bit.ly/2os4tvz]

Reuters was unable to determine if either man was directly involved in the drafting of the documents. Reshetnikov’s office referred questions to the Russian institute.

On its website, the Russian institute describes itself as providing “expert appraisals,” “recommendations,” and “analytical materials” to the Russian president’s office, cabinet, National Security Council, ministries and parliament. [bit.ly/2pCBGpR]

On Jan. 31, the websites of Putin’s office [bit.ly/2os9wMr] and the institute [bit.ly/2oLn9Kd] posted a picture and transcript of Reshetnikov and his successor Fradkov meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. Putin thanked Reshetnikov for his service and told Fradkov he wanted the institute to provide objective information and analysis.

“We did our best for nearly eight years to implement your foreign policy concept,” Reshetnikov told Putin. “The policy of Russia and the policy of the President of Russia have been the cornerstone of our operation.”

(Reporting by Ned Parker and Jonathan Landay, additional reporting by Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Rohde and Ross Colvin)

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