How the Washington Post Missed the Biggest Watergate Story of All

The Watergate scandal may have been rooted in Richard Nixon’s alleged efforts to sabotage the 1968 Paris peace talks, but this story has never fully been told – partly because the Washington Post remained silent on it, explains Garrick Alder.

By Garrick Alder

Stephen Spielberg’s film The Post is still running in theaters, lauding the Washington Post, Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee as fearless exposers of official secrets about government wrongdoing. But previously overlooked evidence now reveals for the first time how the Washington Post missed the most serious leak in newspaper history, and as a result history itself took a serious wrong turn. Consequently, this is a story that was also missed by Spielberg, and missed by Alan Pakula in his 1976 film about The Washington Post’s role in Watergate, All The President’s Men.

Standing behind the bar aboard Air Force One, President Richard Nixon speaks with military and civilian leaders while flying from Bangkok to Saigon for a short visit with commanders and troops stationed in Vietnam.

Spielberg’s 2018 film tells the story of the “Pentagon Papers” affair of 1971, in which a huge number of Defense Department documents were leaked by RAND Corporation employee Daniel Ellsberg, whose conscience would not allow him to stay silent about the carnage in Vietnam. The Washington Post took on Richard Nixon and won – a victory for press freedom that has been enshrined in the mythos of the mass media. But in fact, the Washington Post had inadvertently let Nixon off the hook.

The newspaper had been told by an unbeatable source – one might almost say, an “unimpeachable” source – that the president had committed treason against America in time of war and had then conspired to destroy the damning evidence of his own crime. It is no exaggeration to say that if the Washington Post had printed what it had been told, simmering domestic discontent over the Vietnam War would have become an incendiary mix with national disgust over Nixon’s conduct in office.

At the height of the Watergate scandal, in summer 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to tell the world about Nixon’s sabotage of the 1968 Paris peace talks, talks which – had they succeeded – could have spared the nation six more years of futile slaughter. Nixon would have gone down with the blame for Vietnam squarely on his shoulders – ultimately, perhaps, providing America with much-needed catharsis. Kissinger leaked his knowledge of Nixon’s treason to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Woodward fumbled the pass and no story ever appeared.

The first trace of desperation is recorded on the White House tape of June 17, 1971, just four days after the first newspaper story about the Pentagon Papers (in the New York Times). Nixon is heard telling White House chief of staff HR Haldeman: “God damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get them.” Nixon’s aides were used to occasionally turning a deaf ear to their boss’s more outrageous orders.

Indeed a fortnight later (June 30, 1971) Nixon had to hammer home his demands once more: “I want Brookings … just break in, break in, and take it out. Do you understand? You’re to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in.” Twenty-four hours later, Nixon issued the same demand even more emphatically: “Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night? No? Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out.” What was in the safe at the Brookings Institute?

In a July 24, 1974 memorandum, Woodward set out what he could recall of an interview with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, in which the Brookings break-in was discussed:

At president’s direction E[hrlichman] said he talked to Brookings and about secrecy there; did it several times; right after Pentagon Papers. Also about Brookings a meeting in San Clemente about 12 July 71 ‘undoubtedly discussed it’ (w/ Dean) the discussions were an effort to get the so-called “bombing halt” papers back.

The “bombing halt papers” were what Nixon told his cronies he wanted to retrieve – evidence that his predecessor Lyndon Johnson had stopped bombing in Vietnam in a last-minute attempt to swing the 1968 election to the Democratic Party. But this was just another Nixon lie to conceal his true motivations, and Ehrlichman essentially admitted as much to Bob Woodward during the same interview, when describing his attempts to access the Brookings Institute’s Vietnam records via official bureaucratic channels: “Buzhardt decided what we not get to see [sic] So it was admittedly a hit and miss process. … in terms of ? what he got to see; not the whole story; but the Brookings matter was not necessarily what he was looking for. Wouldn’t elaborate on that.” (emphasis added)

Filed in the Woodward-Bernstein collection at the University of Texas, among the July 24, 1974 Ehrlichman interview notes, is a second typed memorandum from Woodward, addressed to his colleague Carl Bernstein. Its significance has been overlooked for nearly 45 years. The memo is undated,  but, from part of its contents, its creation can be pinned down to a period of approximately 35 days at the height of the Watergate scandal, immediately prior to July 24, 1974 when the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand over the White House tapes.

Woodward’s memo begins: “First and most important, my source said that the President personally ordered the break-in at Brookings.” This was correct, although the tapes of Nixon’s orders were at this stage still in the sole possession of the White House.

Woodward’s source knew what he was talking about. After some discussion about how Charles Colson had reacted to the President’s order to burgle the Brookings Institute, when other aides had just ignored what they regarded as another of Nixon’s impetuous outbursts, Woodward got to the point of his source’s information:

“I quizzed him for a while, and while I don’t remember exactly what he answered in each instance, the impression left was that these papers related to secret U.S. negotiations with Hanoi, Russia and China. The ‘Other stuff,’ my source said, really provided the impetus for the administration’s panic reaction to the Pentagon Papers, not the Pentagon Papers themselves.” (emphases added)

As can be seen, the exact information passed on by Woodward’s source was already a fading memory by the time this memo was typed up. Even so, the import is clear. Woodward’s source knew exactly why Nixon wanted a break-in at the Brookings Institute, and which documents Nixon wanted to seize.

Woodward’s notes state that his source told him “several times that the picture the public had of [Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel] Ellsberg was still distorted … all he would hint at was that Ellsberg’s activities were very questionable.”

He also mentioned to Woodward the supposed existence of “material that the [Nixon] administration had gathered about Ellsberg’s behavior while in Vietnam.” This corresponds closely with claims that had been made in the White House soon after Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers had been published.

In his 2000 tell-all biography, The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, Anthony Summers wrote: “Kissinger, who knew Ellsberg, fed the president’s spleen with a torrent of allegations. Ellsberg may have been ‘the brightest student I ever had,’ he told Nixon, but he was ‘a little unbalanced.’ He supposedly ‘had weird sexual habits, used drugs,’ and, in Vietnam, had ‘enjoyed helicopter flights in which he would take potshots at the Vietnamese below.’ Ellsberg had married a millionaire’s daughter and – Kissinger threw in for good measure – had sex with her in front of their children.”

Other information known to Woodward’s source included the existence of “a document – he gave the number as NSSCM 113 on declassification. We did not get further than that.” It is somewhat surprising that Woodward was able to recall the number of this document so exactly, when his recollection of the nature of the papers Nixon wanted from Brookings was so hazy. The document Woodward’s source was directing him toward was NSSM 113 (just one letter different; NSSM standing for “National Security Study Memorandum”). Dated January 15, 1971, NSSM 113 was titled “Procedures for Declassification and Release of Official Documents” and was written by Henry Kissinger.

Finally, Woodward mentions that “My source also confirmed that Kissinger was for a unit to plug security leaks” (i.e., that Kissinger had supported the formation of Nixon’s “plumbers” team).

Assessing the reliability of Woodward’s information concerning the Brookings break-in plan, the following factors are known. Woodward’s source repeated rumours about Ellsberg that Kissinger was circulating in the White House; like Kissinger, Woodward’s source claimed to have knowledge about Ellsberg’s private life; Woodward’s source knew the document number and nature of a (then undisclosed) memorandum concerning national security that had been written by Kissinger; and the source was able to give solid information about Kissinger’s private attitude toward Nixon’s creation of the plumbers.

There could only be a very small number of White House figures privy to this precise set of information in mid-1974, and perhaps only one. Woodward’s source was Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Still alive in 2018, Kissinger has maintained public silence about his knowledge of Nixon’s Vietnam treason for half a century.

It is incomprehensible that neither Woodward nor Bernstein appeared to understand the information they were being told by Kissinger: the allegations against Nixon had swirled ever since he won the Presidency. On January 12, 1969, the Washington Post itself had carried a profile of Nixon’s go-between, Anna Chennault, which stated: “She reportedly encouraged Saigon to ‘delay’ in joining the Paris peace talks in hopes of getting a better deal if the Republicans won the White House.” Chennault was reported as making no comment on the allegations, which were entirely accurate.

Woodward and Bernstein had been handed the skeleton key that would have unlocked the entire Watergate affair. The reporters had been told – by no less a figure than Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger – about the real motive behind Nixon’s plan to burgle the Brookings Institute. It was to destroy the evidence that Nixon had conspired to prolong a war with an official enemy of the United States in order to win the presidency in 1968; after which he deliberately prolonged – even escalated – the Vietnam War. And – for reasons that might never be known – Woodward and Bernstein stayed silent.

Bob Woodward and Henry Kissinger were contacted for comment on the specific disclosures made in this article. Neither of them replied.

This is an abridgement of an article first published by Lobster Magazine ( Republished with permission. All rights reserved by the author.


29 comments for “How the Washington Post Missed the Biggest Watergate Story of All

  1. mike k
    February 20, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    Professional liars at work. Dirty games of the rich and powerful. Can anyone be so naïve as to think these power players care one bit about the rights and safety of ordinary people, even millions who have been murdered by their scheming? This is the truth about your government in action. These people are the enemies of mankind.

  2. Antiwar7
    February 20, 2018 at 7:27 pm

    Here’s the great Robert Parry’s take on this subject, back in 2014:

  3. David Smith
    February 20, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    The United States, through The Constitution, has the strictest definition of treason in the world. That is giving aid(material aid) and comfort(in its 18th century meaning) to a nation at war with the US. How Nixon’s alleged action constitutes treason is not made clear by this article. Setting aside that dubious charge, this author and others supporting this narrative claim that Nixon’s actions prevented a peace treaty before the November 1968 elections. IMHO this is a false assertion. Certainly, LBJ halted the bombing of N Vietnam as a good faith gesture, and invited the Hanoi regime to peace talks. However there is no way a treaty could be negotiated in the six months before the Presidential elections. There were numerous issues that were very difficult, and in certain cases impossible to resolve with an agreement by all four parties such as a Ceasefire and agreed lines of control and composition of a Control Commission, future elections in S Vietnam, replacement of critical military equipment to respective parties, the complex particulars of POW exchange, permitted military activities of the US, and perhaps the stickiest, would the NVA agree to leave S Vietnam or would it insist to stay. This last one was particularly offensive to the Saigon regime. Kissinger could not get the NVA to agree to leave, lied to Saigon about it(Saigon was wise to his lying) and in the end Nixon had to threaten cessation of all aid to get Saigon to sign. The negotiations for the Paris Accords were neccesarily complex and long as the US had to leave Saigon with a structure that gave it a chance for survival. The US violated the Accords by continuing B-52 raids in support of Saigon only halted by Congressional action in August 1973. Nixon was elected in 1968 on the promise to end the war and it is a false charge to accuse him of lying cynically with the intention to prolong the war. His actions in 1969, 1970, and 1971 were an attempt to give Saigon the best position possible. Nixon also had to deal with the rightists in America who would see the Paris Accords as a sellout. Originally, Hanoi proposed signing on October 1972, thinking they were giving Nixon a boost. Nixon however fearing the rightists didn’t want the Accords known until after the election so he allowed Saigon to object to several clauses as a delaying tactic. Hanoi then walked out because they thought Nixon was buying time to ram in more materiel. This led to the infamous 1972 Christmas Bombing of Hanoi, to get Hanoi back to the table. In the end it was Saigon that balked, refusing to sign because the Accords left the NVA in the South. Nixon forced their hand by threatening to cease all aid. I have added this final narrative to illustrate the bizarre complexity of the absurd mess, and what mind boggling difficulties Nixon had to face. A simplistic narrative casting Nixon as a traitor and “war prolonger” is not justified by a balanced analysis of the facts.

    • evelync
      February 25, 2018 at 12:25 pm

      Thank you David Smith for your efforts to shine light more light on this horrific mess.
      I, myself, was not able, on first reading, to understand the article written by Mr. Alder.
      When I read the note at the end of the article that it was an abridgment of the original U.K.’s “Lobster Magazine” article I thought that perhaps reading the whole article would help.
      I’m linking to the complete article here for others who may wish to easily access it:

      I haven’t read it yet…..
      But I wanted to thank you for your effort to share with the rest of us the horrible complexity of what was going on.

      In my mind what went on in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos and whatever other countries were involved were mass murder crimes that Nixon and Kissinger were a part of.

      If this country were a real democracy then – given that very imperfect individuals are always given so much power to do harm – then instead the public, instead of being in the dark on foreign policy and fed Cold War lies and distortions, would become engaged and informed on foreign policy. Only then would a handful of power-crazed people not be allowed to do these things.

      The people in this country have abrogated our responsibility to demand to know the thrust of foreign policy and have a say in what it should be. People caught up in the Washington maelstrom seem to turn into monsters doing terrible things that always come back to make this country less safe and reviled in the rest of the world while robbing the pockets of average Americans and filling the pockets of a few unsavory characters. Millions are killed and displaced.

      It represents a failure of the founding fathers to craft a “perfect union” unless these secret practices of wrongdoing are reigned in by the people. I don’t see it happening until we finally bankrupt ourselves.
      As Robert Frost said – it will end in FIRE or ICE.

  4. February 20, 2018 at 8:09 pm

    Back in April 2014 Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda Bird Johnson Robb was on the Pure Bull Shit Newshour (they have gone a long way from the days of McNeill Leher) and she brought up the fact that as her father was attempting to bring peace in Vietnam the South Vietnamese government was being told they would get a better deal under President Nixon.
    Gwen Ifill, reporter for PBS essentially did her “Star Wars” line of nothing to see here, move on stating: “So much drama involving Vietnam, so much drama involving the Civil Rights Act. Robert Kimball, you were 24 years old…” moving away from Lynda Bird Johnson Robb so she had no change to expand on the treason by Nixon supporters.

    • David Smith
      February 20, 2018 at 9:20 pm

      1) Accurately define treason. 2) Explain how in the six or seven months between April 1968 and the November election LBJ could have negotiated and signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam.

      • February 21, 2018 at 5:45 pm

        I’m so sick of these egotists who think that aggressively firing stupid questions at a commenter constitutes a reply or a counter argument.
        Explain this, define that… This isn’t the 12th century anymore Gregory..
        If we’re harassing people into explaining arbitrary assertions, how about you explain how ‘to give aid and comfort to the enemy’ is the ‘strictest definition of treason in the world’. And make sure you list every known definition in your answer.

        In case you are capable of reason, here is a rebuttal to your assertions.

        “…claim that Nixon’s actions prevented a peace treaty before the November 1968 elections. IMHO this is a false assertion.”

        Your logic that a peace treaty is complex and that this complexity is why it was delayed is flawed. You are speaking of practicalities. The article speaks of intent.

        “She reportedly encouraged Saigon to ‘delay’ in joining the Paris peace talks in hopes of getting a better deal if the Republicans won the White house”.

        Nixon intended to delay peace so he could win election on a platform of calling for peace.

        By mine and apparently many others definition, this is treasonous manipulation of the electorate. If it troubles you that this definition doesn’t correlate with the definition provided by your precious constitution, go buy a feckin dictionary like everyone else…

      • David Smith
        February 21, 2018 at 10:09 pm

        Luke, if you want to accuse Nixon of treason, you are stuck with the definition of treason in The United States “precious constitution”. Regarding the Paris Accords, practicalities are all that matter, negotiations in the political environment of the Vietnam War would absolutely be long and complex, and the history shows that they were, hence claiming a peace treaty could be signed in the six months before November 1968 is unrealistic, even delusional. In addition to the extreme time constraints, the US was in a poor negotiating position as around July 1968 it was forced to abandon the Khe Son complex, the Khan Duc complex, and many other positions under heavy NVA pressure. These positions near the Laotian border had been key to US plans to interdict NVA reinforcements and return the critical Central Highlands to Saigon control. Certainly not a time for the US to push for a swift settlement. Despite these mind boggling realities, this article claims that peace was lost because the South Vietnam government ” delayed” something due to a guy who wasn’t President asking Anna Chennault to visit Saigon.

    • Joe Tedesky
      February 20, 2018 at 11:34 pm

      Hey mike good of you to point that out, because what Ifill did there was classic redirection of a focal point to another one, which ends up being an omission of where convenient truths get purposely left out. Just thought I’d mention it, because one should really let your comment sink in. Joe

  5. Annie
    February 20, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    Someone explain this to me. “At the height of the Watergate scandal, in summer 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to tell the world about Nixon’s sabotage of the 1968 Paris peace talks, talks which – had they succeeded – could have spared the nation six more years of futile slaughter.” Am I missing something?

    What happened to the Kissinger, the war criminal, who worked to prolong the Vietnam war, advocating it should continue for as long as possible?.
    What happened to the Kissinger who encouraged Nixon to wire tape and intimidate his political enemies?
    What happened to the Kissinger who supported secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos, killing thousands, and eventually leading to a regime in Cambodia that killed millions.
    What about the Kissinger who said, “Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.”

    • Lee Campbell
      February 20, 2018 at 10:40 pm

      Kissinger, knowing Nixon is going down, trying to save his own reputation. Birds of a feather…

      • Annie
        February 21, 2018 at 12:11 am

        Yes, I agree, but there is something about this article which makes me uncomfortable, and maybe it’s because the author does not indicate in any way that Kissinger was protecting his own reputation, or being very self serving. Maybe he was not to believed since his role in that war was notorious, and not the reliable source the author proclaims him to be.

    • Joe Tedesky
      February 20, 2018 at 11:47 pm

      Annie, what happened to a elderly Pablo Picasso who had admitted to a Japanese newspaper how he had been in the arts for only for the money? Well first is this statement true? How does little old me corroborate such news? Was Picasso drunk when he said this? So many questions, but where to find the truth.

      I’m not doubting Garrick Alder because he does give adequate references to this Kissinger quote, but Annie haven’t you on occasion read something by the legendary elite of our past, and sometimes present where they say the most off the wall things…like think Joe Biden telling a West Point Class (I think it was there or Harvard) that our Saudi allies are backing ISIS. What goes on, or gets served, at those gushy luncheons they give speeches at.

      I also believe that people like Henry are so encased into their own bubble world, that they get caught off guard with the most simplest of secrets. I once had a list of 7 people who either before they died, or on their death bed, had confessed to their knowing to who killed JFK…need I tell you who they all singled out?

      • California Bob
        February 26, 2018 at 5:56 pm

        Allen Dulles?

    • Broompilot
      February 21, 2018 at 4:21 am

      I seem to recall Kissinger being very complicit in sabotaging the Paris peace talks, maybe even the instigator.
      But, Hollywood and history is an oxymoron. Hollywood and truth is an oxymoron.

    • Fritzi Cohen
      February 21, 2018 at 1:10 pm

      What about Kissinger and Chile, and the overthrow of Allende. Not to be forgotten.
      And should we now take Kissinger’s word about Dan Ellsberg, somewhat of a narcissist
      and pervert.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    February 20, 2018 at 11:27 pm

    I recall Robert Parry speaking to LBJ’s envelop marked with a big X, and how it had finally surfaced after being under a mattress, and I’m hard pressed to remember the name of this Johnson Aid who hid it for LBJ there. This envelope was a report on Chennault‘s goings on at the Paris Peace Talks, and her links to Nixon’s campaign. Robert Mueller wasn’t old enough to investigate this one.

    I always thought of how with LBJ having this peace talk sabotage to hold over Nixon’s head that LBJ was using this as insurance to keep Nixon quiet about what he knew of LBJ’s secret to hide. This is why nobody in DC is held accountable.

    Yes, going back to reveal Nixon’s secret regarding Madam Chennault would have been a great starting point for a movie to lead up to not only the Pentagon Papers, but the telling of Watergate as well…but then we are talking about our infamous Hollywood, and when did they ever get the story right?

  7. geeyp
    February 21, 2018 at 4:12 am

    The only item new to me here is Daniel married a millionaires’ daughter?

  8. Tom W.
    February 21, 2018 at 11:25 am

    In a taped call of Nov. 2, 1968, LBJ called Republican Senator E. Dirksen and told him that Nixon was committing treason in regards to the Paris talks. I don’t think we’ve ever seen the underlying intelligence that was the basis of this call.

    • California Bob
      February 26, 2018 at 5:55 pm

      You can read about it in Kissinger’s book about that era.

  9. Jon Dhoe
    February 21, 2018 at 12:43 pm

    This is not surprising. Woodward is comes from the Navy (Intelligence?). He’s not a civilian reporter. And look at his reporting since then. Status quo stuff. The Pentagon Papers were just a distraction?

  10. xeno
    February 21, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    There’s nothing new about this story, and there’s nothing particularly condemnatory about Nixon in it.

    US President Johnson wanted his VP (Humphrey) to win the 1968 election, which was very close.

    Early in 1968, the US/S Viet side had defeated a Communist “go for broke” offensive (Tet) in which the Communists had expected the South Vietnamese populace to rise up and help defeat the US/South Vietnamese military. The populace did not rise up, and the Communist side took some very heavy losses. It was a big set back for them.

    Some months later, US President Johnson, at a key time before the Nov. 1968 election, tried to pressure the S Vietnamese President to give some concessions to the N Vietnamese to get peace talks going.

    This would not have stopped the fighting, but would have looked good to anti-war US voters, maybe getting Johnson’s VP a victory.

    Commonly, in most conflicts, when peace talks begin, both sides step-up fighting as each hopes to make gains to improve their negotiating position.

    Nixon probably did take measures to thwart Johnson’s pressure on the S. Vietnamese president.

    In any case, the war would have gone on, just like it did for a long time after peace talks actually did get going.

  11. nonsense factory
    February 21, 2018 at 5:21 pm

    Hey, no mention of the Shah of Iran and the Nixon Administration? It’s the corporate states of America now, it was alway about the money. If you’re not tracking the corporate system, you are irrelevant. At least Eisenhower was honest, about US interests in Vietnamese resources, about controlling Indonesian oil. . . People care about money. Not ideology. But that’s more complex, isn’t it?

  12. Ullern
    February 21, 2018 at 7:17 pm

    Robert Parry found out and wrote about this treason by Nixon, of course. Except (?) that W&B’s source was the wily Kissinger. Kissinger, 94, could still be tried for not disclosing the treason-crime by candidate Nixon.

    Somebody should go for it, before Kissinger dies. Then at least the facts of the matter will be on public record.

    • February 22, 2018 at 6:20 pm

      Gosh, If we can’t nail Kissinger on openly calling for Genocide in Cambodia, then I don’t think anything else will work. I’d love to see him official dishonored before he dies (completely), mind you.

  13. peggy
    February 21, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    LBJ calling Dirksen and telling him Nixon was committing treason is rich considering the treason LBJ committed with the Tonkin incident to say nothing of the USS Liberty cover up.The US has been corrupt since Woodrow Wilson.The CIA controls the country since the Kennedy coup.

  14. exiled off mainstreet
    February 22, 2018 at 2:11 am

    So they still are cashing in for getting the smaller story while failing to get the treason story that set up the creation of a dangerous world imperium and was a key step in the brushing aside of the rule of law and constitutional rule in the US

  15. February 22, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    The GOP should forever cast Nixon’ image out, not because of Watergate, but because the fool took over LBJ’s war and made it his own. An incredible blunder that Republicans got tarred with the stain of JFK and LBJ’s war.

  16. California Bob
    February 26, 2018 at 5:50 pm

    This astounding revelation that Nixon had Kissinger destroy the peace talks was in one of Kissinger’s earlier books. I was shocked at the time that he so blatantly admitted it. It’s certainly a war crime.

    In Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War, I was sorry he didn’t mention Kissenger’s role, but he dropped another bomb – Ho Chi Minh wrote to President Roosevelt asking that he intercede with the French to let Vietnam be it’s own country. Somehow the CIA intercepted the letter and put it in their archives and the president or Truman never saw it. For reference, Gandhi wrote to Roosevelt and asked that he talk to Churchill about giving freedom to India, which Roosevelt did.

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