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Profile: Geoff Morrell
Geoff Morrell was a participant or observer in the following events:
Pentagon press spokesman Geoff Morrell tells journalists that the Defense Department has new numbers documenting the “recidivism” of former Guantanamo detainees now engaged in terror activities. “The new numbers are, we believe, 18 confirmed and 43 suspected of returning to the fight,” Morrell says. “So 61 in all former Guantanamo detainees are confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight.” [US Department of Defense, 1/13/2009]
No Details on Numbers - The Pentagon figure would represent around 11 percent of the roughly 520 detainees released from the facility. National security expert Peter Bergen notes that the recidivism rate for prisoners in the US civilian judicial system is about 65 percent. Morrell defends the report, but refuses to say exactly where the information comes from. Instead, he says: “We don’t make these figures up. They’re not done willy-nilly.” Other Pentagon officials say they will not discuss how the figures were derived because of national security concerns. Morrell says the figures come from the Defense Intelligence Agency, “and they go over this with great care.” [CNN, 1/22/2009]
Law Professor: Pentagon Figures 'Egregiously' Wrong - In an exhaustive study of the Pentagon’s records of detainees, Seton Hall University law professor Mark Denbeaux disputes the Pentagon claim, calling it “egregiously” wrong (see January 16, 2009). “Once again, they’ve failed to identify names, numbers, dates, times, places, or acts upon which their report relies,” Denbeaux writes. “Every time they have been required to identify the parties, the DOD [Defense Department] has been forced to retract their false IDs and their numbers. They have included people who have never even set foot in Guantanamo—much less were they released from there. They have counted people as ‘returning to the fight’ for their having written an op-ed piece in the New York Times and for their having appeared in a documentary exhibited at the Cannes Film Festival. The DOD has revised and retracted their internally conflicting definitions, criteria, and their numbers so often that they have ceased to have any meaning—except as an effort to sway public opinion by painting a false portrait of the supposed dangers of these men. Forty-three times they have given numbers—which conflict with each other—all of which are seriously undercut by the DOD statement that ‘they do not track’ former detainees. Rather than making up numbers ‘willy-nilly’ about post release conduct, America might be better served if our government actually kept track of them.” [Seton Hall University, 1/15/2009] It is difficult to know exactly how many former Guantanamo detainees have returned to fighting, Denbeaux’s study finds, because of the incredibly poor record-keeping kept on detainees by the Pentagon (see January 20, 2009 ). Some of the detainees identified as recidivists never appeared on the detainee rolls. Some detainees were misidentified by the Pentagon, or identified as more than one person—and subsequently counted as more than one recidivist. Some have been dead for years, or are in the custody of other nations’ judicial systems. The Pentagon counts the so-called “Tipton Three” (see November 28, 2001) as “returning to the fight,” even though their only “terrorist activity” has been their participation in a documentary about unjust imprisonment in Guantanamo. The Pentagon also lists the recently released Uighurs, Chinese Muslims who were found to have no ties whatsoever to Islamic terrorism. One of the released Uighurs wrote a 2006 op-ed column for the New York Times protesting his imprisonment (see September 17, 2006), the extent of his documented “terrorist” actions. [New American, 1/27/2009]
Defense Secretary Downplays Report's Significance - Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen notes that many of the Guantanamo detainees were never terrorists at all, but were singled out as terrorists by Afghani villagers who told US authorities that they were members of al-Qaeda, either for personal revenge or for bounty money. Quoting former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bergen says, “We know that a lot of people who were in Guantanamo don’t qualify as being the ‘worst of the worst.’” Bergen says that many of the “suspected” terrorists have done nothing more than publicly make anti-American statements, “something that’s not surprising if you’ve been locked up in a US prison camp for several years.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only holdover from the Bush administration currently serving in President Obama’s cabinet and an advocate for closing the Guantanamo facility, downplays the number of detainees supposedly engaged in terrorism. “It’s not as big a number if you’re talking about 700 or a thousand or however many have been through Guantanamo,” he says. [CNN, 1/22/2009]
Susan Crawford. [Source: Susan Crawford / Washington Post]The senior Bush administration official in charge of bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial rules that the US military tortured a detainee, and therefore the US cannot try him. Susan Crawford, the convening authority of military commissions, says that the US tortured Mohamed al-Khatani, a Saudi national accused of planning to participate in the September 11 attacks (see August 4, 2001). Crawford says al-Khatani was interrogated with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, and which cumulatively left him in a “life-threatening condition.” Crawford says: “We tortured [al-]Khatani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution. Crawford is a retired judge who served as the Army’s general counsel during the Reagan administration and the Pentagon’s inspector general during the first Bush administration. She is the first senior official of the current Bush administration to publicly state that a detainee was tortured while in US custody.
Cumulative Effect Equals Torture - None of the individual techniques used against al-Khatani were torturous in and of themselves, Crawford says, but the cumulative effect—particularly their duration and the deleterious effect on al-Khatani’s health—combined to constitute torture. “The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent,” she says. “You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge” to call it torture. Al-Khatani has been in US custody since December 2001 (see December 2001), and was interrogated from November 2002 through January 2003 (reports of the exact dates vary—see August 8, 2002-January 15, 2003 and October 11, 2002). He was held in isolation until April 2003. “For 160 days his only contact was with the interrogators,” Crawford says. “Forty-eight of 54 consecutive days of 18-to-20-hour interrogations. Standing naked in front of a female agent. Subject to strip searches. And insults to his mother and sister.” He was threatened with a military dog named Zeus. He “was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head during the course of his interrogation,” Crawford says, and “was told that his mother and sister were whores.” With a leash tied to his chains, he was led around the room “and forced to perform a series of dog tricks,” according to reports from his interrogations. He was twice hospitalized with bradycardia, a potentially lethal condition where the heartbeat drops to abnormally low levels.
Ruling Halts Future Prosecution against al-Khatani - Crawford dismissed war crimes charges against al-Khatani in May 2008 (see May 13, 2008). In November, military prosecutors said they would refile charges against al-Khatani, based on subsequent interrogations that did not employ harsh techniques (see November 18, 2008). But Crawford says that she would not let any such prosecutions go forward. However, Crawford is not unaware of the potential danger posed by letting him go free. “There’s no doubt in my mind he would’ve been on one of those planes had he gained access to the country in August 2001,” Crawford says. “He’s a muscle hijacker.… He’s a very dangerous man. What do you do with him now if you don’t charge him and try him? I would be hesitant to say, ‘Let him go.’” Al-Khatani’s civilian lawyer, Gitanjali Gutierrez, says, “There is no doubt he was tortured.” Gutierrez says: “He has loss of concentration and memory loss, and he suffers from paranoia.… He wants just to get back to Saudi Arabia, get married and have a family.” Al-Khatani “adamantly denies he planned to join the 9/11 attack,” she adds. “He has no connections to extremists.” Gutierrez says she thinks Saudi Arabia has an effective rehabilitation program and Khatani ought to be returned there. [Washington Post, 1/14/2009; New York Times, 1/14/2009] His lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights describe him as a broken, suicidal man who can never be prosecuted because of his treatment at the hands of his captors. [New York Times, 1/14/2009]
Sympathetic but Unbending - Crawford, a lifelong Republican, says she sympathizes with the situation faced by the Bush administration and the CIA after the 9/11 attacks. “I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe,” she acknowledges. “But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward.” Noting that the 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case (see June 30, 2006) disallowed torture but allowed for “coercive interrogation techniques,” Crawford says even those techniques should not be allowed: “You don’t allow it in a regular court.” Crawford says she is not yet sure if any of the other five detainees accused of participating in the 9/11 plot, including their leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were tortured, but she believes they may have been. “I assume torture,” she says, and notes that CIA Director Michael Hayden has publicly confirmed that Mohammed was one of three detainees subjected to waterboarding, a technique classified by law as torture. Crawford has not blocked prosecution of the other five detainees. Ultimately, she says, the responsibility for the farrago of illegal detentions and torture rests with President Bush. He was right to create a system to try suspected terrorists, she says, but the implementation was fatally flawed. “I think he hurt his own effort.… I think someone should acknowledge that mistakes were made and that they hurt the effort and take responsibility for it.… We learn as children it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission. I think the buck stops in the Oval Office.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]
Rules Change - Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says that the Hamdan case changed the rules, and thus retroactively classified al-Khatani’s treatment as torture. “The [Defense] Department has always taken allegations of abuse seriously,” he says. “We have conducted more than a dozen investigations and reviews of our detention operations, including specifically the interrogation of Mohamed al-Khatani, the alleged 20th hijacker. They concluded the interrogation methods used at [Guantanamo], including the special techniques used on Khatani in 2002, were lawful. However, subsequent to those reviews, the Department adopted new and more restrictive policies and procedures for interrogation and detention operations. Some of the aggressive questioning techniques used on al-Khatani, although permissible at the time, are no longer allowed in the updated Army field manual.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]
Prosecutors Unprepared - When Crawford came to Guantanamo as convening authority in 2007, she says “the prosecution was unprepared” to bring cases to trial. Even after four years of working possible cases, “they were lacking in experience and judgment and leadership.” She continues: “A prosecutor has an ethical obligation to review all the evidence before making a charging decision. And they didn’t have access to all the evidence, including medical records, interrogation logs, and they were making charging decisions without looking at everything.” It took over a year, and the intervention of Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, for prosecutors to turn over possibly exculpatory evidence to defense lawyers, even though the law requires that such evidence be turned over immediately. The entire system at Guantanamo is a blot on the reputation of the US and its military judicial system, she says: “There’s an assumption out there that everybody was tortured. And everybody wasn’t tortured. But unfortunately perception is reality.” The system she oversees cannot function now, she believes. “Certainly in the public’s mind, or politically speaking, and certainly in the international community” it may be forever tainted. “It may be too late.” [Washington Post, 1/14/2009]
Entity Tags: Susan Crawford, Gordon England, Gitanjali Gutierrez, George W. Bush, Geoff Morrell, Central Intelligence Agency, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Bush administration (43), Center for Constitutional Rights, Mohamed al-Khatani, US Department of Defense, Michael Hayden
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives
Officials for the incoming Obama administration are dismayed to find that the task of closing Guantanamo Bay, one of President Obama’s first orders as president (see January 22, 2009), is going to be much harder than anticipated, because the records and details of the approximately 245 prisoners in custody are in terrific disarray. Obama officials, barred from examining classified records on the detainees until the inauguration, also find that many of the prisoners have no comprehensive case files at all. What information that does exist on the detainees is, according to a senior Obama official, “scattered throughout the executive branch.” Most detainees have little more than a dossier containing brief summaries of information, and lack any sort of background or investigative information that would be required for federal prosecutions. Obama named a Cabinet-level panel to review each case individually before the base is to be closed in a year, and those panel members will now have to spend weeks and perhaps months hunting down and correlating relevant material.
'Food Fights' among Bush Agencies - Officials from the former Bush administration admit that the files are incomplete, and that no single government office was tasked with keeping the information on Guantanamo detainees together. They blame the CIA and other intelligence agencies for not adequately sharing information, and add that the Bush administration’s focus was more on detention and interrogation, and much less on putting together information for future prosecutions. A former Pentagon official says that “regular food fights” between competing government agencies over the sharing of information contributed to the lack of coherent and consistent files. (A CIA official denies that the agency ever balked at sharing information with other governmental agencies, and says the Defense Department was more likely to be responsible for laspes in information.)
Former Bush Officials Say Obama Officials 'Look[ing] for Excuses' - However, other former Bush officials say the Obama team is trying to “look for excuses” instead of dealing with the complexities of the issues involved. Obama officials, after promising quick solutions, are now “backpedaling and trying to buy time” by blaming its predecessor, according to a former senior Bush official. He says that “all but about 60… are either high-level al-Qaeda people responsible for 9/11 or bombings, or were high-level Taliban or al-Qaeda facilitators or money people,” and the Obama administration will come to the same conclusion as Bush officials: that they need to stay in detention without trial or charges.
Files 'Not Comprehensive,' Problem Noted in Previous Judicial Proceedings - But Obama officials say they want to make their own judgments. A senior Obama official says: “The consensus among almost everyone is that the current system is not in our national interest and not sustainable. [But] it’s clear that we can’t clear up this issue overnight” in part because the files “are not comprehensive.” Justice Department lawyers claim that after the Supreme Court ruled detainees have habeas corpus rights (see June 30, 2006), Bush officials were “overwhelmed” by the sudden need to gather and correlate information and material. In one federal filing, the Justice Department told a court that the record for a particular detainee “is not simply a collection of papers sitting in a box at the Defense Department. It is a massive undertaking just to produce the record in this one case.” In another filing, Justice Department officials told a court that “defending these cases requires an intense, inter-agency coordination of efforts. None of the relevant agencies, however, was prepared to handle this volume of habeas cases on an expedited basis.” Some former military officials say that evidence gathered for military commissions trials was scattered and incomplete. One former Guantanamo prosecutor, Darrel Vandeveld, says evidence was “strewn throughout the prosecution offices in desk drawers, bookcases packed with vaguely-labeled plastic containers, or even simply piled on the tops of desks.” He says he once accidentally found “crucial physical evidence” that “had been tossed in a locker located at Guantanamo and promptly forgotten.” [Washington Post, 1/25/2009] Vandeveld says that evidence at Guantanamo was often so disorganized “it was like a stash of documents found in a village in a raid and just put on a plane to the US.” [United Press International, 1/14/2009]
Prosecutors Lacked Evidence Necessary for Prosecutions, Says Senior Official - “A prosecutor has an ethical obligation to review all the evidence before making a charging decision,” says Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military commissions. “And they didn’t have access to all the evidence, including medical records, interrogation logs, and they were making charging decisions without looking at everything.” Crawford has stated that another detainee was tortured while at Guantanamo (see January 14, 2009). [ABA Journal, 1/14/2009]
Defense Department: Information There, but Scattered - Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says the files are in good order: “Fundamentally, we believe that the individual files on each detainee are comprehensive and sufficiently organized,” however, “in many cases, there will be thousands of pages of documents… which makes a comprehensive assessment a time-consuming endeavor.… Not all the documents are physically located in one place,” but most are available through a database. “The main point here is that there are lots of records, and we are prepared to make them available to anybody who needs to see them as part of this review.” [Washington Post, 1/25/2009]
Military judge Colonel James Pohl denies the Obama administration’s request to suspend legal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay (see January 20, 2009) in the case of a detainee accused of planning the attack on the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000). Because of Pohl’s order, the Pentagon may be forced to temporarily withdraw charges against accused Cole plotter Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and perhaps 20 other detainees facing military trials, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see January 5-8, 2000 and November-December 2000).
White House Response - Obama officials are startled by Pohl’s order, as five other military judges have agreed to the government’s request. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says, “We just learned of the ruling here… and we are consulting with the Pentagon and the Department of Justice to explore our options in that case.” Asked if the decision will hamper the administration’s ability to evaluate detainees’ cases, Gibbs replies, “Not at all.”
Judge: Government Arguments 'Unpersuasive' - Pohl says he finds the government’s arguments in favor of suspension “unpersuasive” and that the case will go forward because “the public interest in a speedy trial will be harmed by the delay in the arraignment.” The White House wants the delay in order to review the cases of the approximately 245 detainees at Guantanamo and decide the disposition of each case. Pohl says he is bound by the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006), “which remains in effect.”
Reactions Mixed - Navy Commander Kirk Lippold, who commanded the Cole when it was attacked, says he is “delighted” with the ruling, and adds, “It proves the military commissions work without undue command influence, and this decision puts us back on track to see an accounting for al-Nashiri’s terrorist acts.” Human rights activists disagree, with many arguing that the charges against al-Nashiri and perhaps other detainees should be withdrawn in order to allow the option of preserving or reforming military commissions at a new location. “Given that the Guantanamo order was issued on day two of the new administration, the president was clearly trying to make the immediate decisions needed while giving himself the flexibility to deal with the rest down the road,” says Human Rights Watch official Jennifer Daskal. “That said, the only sure way to ensure that the commissions process is brought to a halt is to now withdraw the charges.”
Options for Proceeding - Susan Crawford, the Pentagon official who approves charges and refers cases to trial (see January 14, 2009), can withdraw charges “without prejudice,” which would allow for refiling at a later date, whether under a modified military commissions procedure or for a civilian or military court. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says, “And so while that executive order is in force and effect, trust me, there will be no proceedings continuing down at Gitmo with military commissions.” Al-Nashiri’s case is complicated by the fact that he is one of at least three detainees who were waterboarded by CIA interrogators (see May 2002-2003). [Washington Post, 1/30/2009]
Entity Tags: Susan Crawford, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Geoff Morrell, James L. Pohl, Jennifer Daskal, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Obama administration, US Department of Justice, Kirk Lippold, Robert Gibbs, US Department of Defense
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The F-22 Raptor. [Source: AeroSpaceWeb (.org)]According to the Boston Globe, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is preparing to announce sweeping cuts in weapons programs over the following months. Gates, the only holdover in the Obama administration from the Bush cabinet, said before President Bush left office that the US “cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything.” Whoever President Obama’s new defense secretary might be, he then said, would have to eliminate some costly hardware and invest in new tools for fighting insurgents. At that point, Gates did not know that he would be asked to stay on as defense secretary.
Scope of Cuts - Senior defense officials say that the impending program cuts will be the largest since the end of the Cold War, during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. About a half-dozen programs will be canceled, including the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet, a new Navy destroyer, Army ground combat vehicles, and other programs such as aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons.
Gates' Role - The Globe reports: “As a former CIA director with strong Republican credentials, Gates is prepared to use his credibility to help Obama overcome the expected outcry from conservatives. And after a lifetime in the national security arena, working in eight administrations, the 65-year-old Gates is also ready to counter the defense companies and throngs of retired generals and other lobbyists who are gearing up to protect their pet projects.” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says, “He has earned a great deal of credibility over the past two years, both inside and outside the Pentagon, and now he is prepared to use it to lead the department in a new direction and bring about the changes he believes are necessary to protect the nation’s security.”
Support - James Shinn, who served under Gates as an assistant defense secretary in the Bush administration, says Gates is perhaps the only person in Washington who can make such drastic cuts happen: “He obviously has huge credibility as something of a hawk. No one can even remotely challenge Gates in terms of his well-informed and conservative approach toward threats and the weapon systems associated with threats.” Longtime Washington official Brent Scowcroft, one of Gates’ closest friends and mentors, says: “He is going to have a hard time. The resistance in the system is heavy. But that what Bob is trying to take on.”
Potential Opposition - However, any cuts will face strong opposition from defense contractors and members of Congress whose districts rely on defense monies. “There are so many people employed in the industry and they are spread across the country,” says William Cohen, a Republican who served as defense secretary in the Clinton administration. “Even though members of Congress may say, ‘It’s great that you are recommending the termination of X, Y, and Z,’ they will also say ‘that means 4,000 jobs in my state. Frankly, I can’t go along with that.’” The declining economy makes such arguments even more compelling, Cohen adds. [Boston Globe, 3/17/2009]
Many top US military commanders in the Middle East are distressed at Senate Republicans’ efforts to block Christopher Hill’s attempt to become the next US ambassador to Iraq. Hill, who was largely successful in crafting a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with North Korea (see Spring and Summer 2005 and February 8, 2007 and After), is being blocked by the efforts of Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Sam Brownback (R-KS), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Republican Opprobrium - Brownback calls Hill’s past dealings with Congress over North Korea “evasive and unprofessional”; McCain and Graham have said that Hill has a “controversial legacy” on North Korea, and added: “The next ambassador should have experience in the Middle East and in working closely with the US military in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations. Mr. Hill has neither.”
Military Wants Hill Confirmed - But CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, top Iraq commander General Raymond Odierno, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates want Hill in the slot as soon as possible. Odierno says he has served as de facto ambassador since the previous ambassador, Ryan Crocker, left the position on February 13. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says: “Generals Odierno and Petraeus have come out very publicly and very forcefully in support of Ambassador Hill’s nomination. I know they support it. They know him from previous assignments, they like him, they believe he is well suited to the job, and are anxiously awaiting his confirmation because they do need help, frankly.… Everybody involved with Iraq wants to find a way to replicate that arrangement,” referring to the effective interaction between Generals Odierno and Petraeus and former Ambassador Crocker. “So that you have an even yoke that on the civilian/diplomatic side and on the military side which share the burden and are working together to get the job done. It’s what’s in the best interest of the Iraqi people and the American people. With regards to [Senate] members who have issue with him, I would say this. We appreciate their steadfast support of the Iraq mission. But you can’t be bullish in support of that mission and not send an ambassador in a timely fashion.”
Difficult, Myriad Tasks in New Position - Hill faces a difficult job: political stabilization and economic development have taken precedence over military missions in Iraq; tensions between Arabs and Kurds are heightening; sectarian groups are struggling for political dominance; and national elections are approaching. A Washington official says that keeping a lid on such political tensions is “crucial to consolidating the security gains from the surge, yet the advocates of the surge want to slow down the process of getting an ambassador to Iraq.” Retired General William Nash, who commanded US troops in Bosnia, says: “I would not at all be surprised if military commanders in Iraq are frustrated that they don’t have a new ambassador in position. The issues are far more political and economic than they are military and US efforts need to move forward on those fronts. That’s particularly critical in the execution of the withdrawal plan.”
Political Retribution? - Asked why McCain, Brownback, and Graham are blocking Hill’s appointment, Nash says the three are “being difficult to be difficult. I have known Chris Hill for 14 years. He is a wonderful diplomat and exactly the kind of guy we need in Iraq.” Crocker has spoken out in favor of Hill, as has Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So have former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and former US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, who join in writing a letter that reads in part: “We need his experience during this crucial time in Iraq. His previous experiences will serve him greatly when addressing extreme challenges in Iraq.” A Democratic Senate staffer says, “This is all about retribution.” Conservatives blame Hill for nudging Bush’s second term North Korea policy towards multi-party talks, and thusly, “[t]hey want to give Hill a black eye.” Noting that these same Republican senators have argued that Iraq is a central element in America’s national security, the staffer asks, “Why are they d_cking around and not putting an ambassador in there if Iraq is so important?” [Foreign Policy, 3/18/2009]
Entity Tags: Raymond Odierno, John McCain, Geoff Morrell, David Petraeus, Lindsey Graham, Zalmay M. Khalilzad, US Central Command, Robert M. Gates, Ryan C. Crocker, William Nash, Samuel Brownback, John Negroponte, Richard Lugar
Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation
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