The first "cult wars", during which scholars of new religious movements and militant anti-cultists both tried to persuade the public authorities, as well as public opinion generally, that their respective narratives of controversial religious groups were accurate, were largely fought between 1978 (the year of Jonestown) and 1990. In the latter year, the Fishman decision, which dealt with accusations of brainwashing allegedly practised by the Church of Scientology, stated that anti-cult brainwashing theories were not legally part of generally-accepted science, and (although not unanimously confirmed by subsequent decisions) marked a more than symbolic defeat for the anti-cult camp. What happened in Waco, in 1993, did not significantly change the situation in the United States, because a significant proportion of scholars, politicians and the media tended to blame the ATF and the FBI for the ill-advised management of the incident. Additional and equally tragic events occurred after Waco, however, and they eventually determined what have become known as the "second cult wars" in the second half of the 1990s.
On October 5, 1994, the Swiss police found the bodies of 48 members of the Order of the Solar Temple (in French: Ordre du Temple Solaire, OTS) in a farm in Cheiry, and in three chalets in Granges-sur-Salvan, both Swiss villages. Investigations revealed that, three days before the Swiss tragedy, five more OTS members had perished in Morin Heights, Quebec. A second tragedy occurred in 1995 when, on December 23, 16 OTS members (including 3 children) were found dead in the mountains of Vercors, near Grenoble, France. Subsequently, on the night of March 21, 1997, another 5 members of the OTS committed suicide in Saint-Casimir, Quebec. The OTS, whose story has been told in detail elsewhere (Introvigne 1999; Mayer 1998, 1999; Introvigne and Mayer 2001), was a new religious movement drawing on the Western esoteric tradition, established by French esoteric teacher Joseph Di Mambro (1924-1994), who later recruited the Belgian homeopathic doctor Luc Jouret (1947-1994) into the fold. A number of different organizations created by Di Mambro in the 1970s and early 1980s led to the legal establishment of the OTS in 1984. While claiming a mythical genealogy derived from the Knights Templars of the Middle Ages, the OTS recognized as its source of authority a number of mysterious "Masters of the Temple", superhuman beings with whom Di Mambro was allegedly in contact. Following a decline in membership, problems with Di Mambros health, and skirmishes with French and Canadian authorities, and at the same time drawing on its own apocalyptic ideas, the OTS leadership became persuaded in the 1990s that the end of the world was at hand, and that salvation was available through ritualised death which would enable a "transit" to another planet. However, only "core" members and the leadership in fact committed suicide; those regarded as "traitors" were mercilessly executed. There was also a third category, of weaker members, who may have accepted the idea of suicide but needed some "help" in accomplishing it. Children who shared the faith of their parents were obviously not in a position to make a decision, and were simply murdered.
On March 20, 1995 a sarin gas attack killed 12 and injured several thousand commuters in the Tokyo subway. The crime was traced to Aum Shinri-kyo, one of the "new" Japanese new religious movements, founded by Shoko Asahara (presently on trial in Tokyo). Investigators also discovered a trail of other crimes committed by Aum Shinri-kyo, including several murders. Aum (see Reader 2000) was a syncretistic movement which, in its early days, acquired a certain degree of legitimacy in international Buddhist circles as a bona fide (if somewhat idiosyncratic) Buddhist movement. Failure to achieve the success he expected, the number of membership defections, criticism and ridicule in the media, later turned Asaharas mood from optimistic to apocalyptic, and led to the development of a criminal theology devoid of any scruples toward violent and illegal actions, and condoning murder as something which could be performed to the ultimate karmic benefit of the victims themselves.
On March 26, 1997 (only five days after the third Solar Temple incident in Quebec), police found the bodies of 39 members of Heavens Gate (a UFO new religious movement,) who had committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The group had been established by Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles (1927-1985) and Marshall Applewhite (1931-1997), who called themselves "The Two", Bo and Peep, and later Ti and Do, between 1973 and 1974. The movement had been extensively studied by social scientists (see Balch and Taylor 1977, Balch 1980, 1982, 1985, 1995) during its "public" phase (1974-1976), while between 1977-1991 it continued to operate largely underground, only to resurface between 1992-1997 through occasional lectures and the Internet. Heavens Gate announced that Planet Earth was about to be destroyed, that most humans were beyond hope of realizing what was going to happen, and that they were, in fact, leading vegetable-like existences. On the other hand, a small group of humans had received a "deposit" in the form of a special soul from benevolent extraterrestrials. Those in this category, who would thus be able to connect with this "deposit", would eventually be saved by the extraterrestrials from the imminent Doomsday (see Introvigne 1997). Originally, Ti and Do taught that spaceships would come to save the elected ones. After Nettles death, however, Applewhite became disillusioned with this long-awaited scenario, and eventually concluded that ritualised suicide was the safest way to receive a new body in the "Kingdom of Heaven", believed to be the benevolent extraterrestrials planet.
On March 17, 2000 hundreds of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a fringe Catholic group believing in apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus not recognized as legitimate by the Catholic hierarchy (who, in fact, excommunicated its leaders), died in the fire of their headquarters in Kanungu, Uganda. Subsequent investigations led to the discovery of several mass graves in properties owned by the Movement throughout Uganda, thus bringing the total death toll to more than 800. Despite studies at Ugandas Makerere University (Kabazzi-Kisirinya, Nkurunziza and Banura 2000) and field investigations by Swiss historian Jean-François Mayer (see Mayer 2000), much is still unclear about what really happened in Kanungu. While most scholars believe that the leaders of the Restoration died in the Kanungu fire, some police officers are still persuaded that at least some of them escaped with the Movements money (similar rumours circulated about Di Mambro and Jouret after 1994, before being refuted by forensic evidence that they had indeed both perished in the first OTS tragedy). It seems that the Restoration movement held apocalyptic beliefs about the end of the world, and that members expected the Virgin Mary to come and take them to Heaven. The expected appearance of the Virgin Mary was probably awaited in the same way as the coming of the Heavens Gate spaceships, or the OTS promise of salvation through the Masters of the Temple. It is likely, as with the OTS, that some Restoration "core" members did come to believe that the only way of going to Heaven was, in fact, ritualised suicide, whilst many others congregated in Kanungu simply to witness the coming of the Virgin Mary, not knowing that they would be "helped" to die, and "traitors" were executed. This OTS-like scenario appears, for the time being at least, to be the most credible hypothesis, although the exact meaning of the mass graves remains a mystery, as well as the fact that the number of murdered "traitors" in Uganda largely exceeded the number of "core" members who really did commit suicide.
As mentioned earlier, the four incidents not only energized the anti-cult movement (particularly in Europe, Asia, and Africa, while in the United States the reaction to Heavens Gate was certainly less strong), but also determined the anti-cult actions of several governments. In the course of these second cult wars, two different anti-cult models (not to be confused with each other) were developed, in order both to make sense of the tragedies and to derive from them a support for wider anti-cult measures. The first was a return to classic brainwashing theories, which constituted the hard core of the U.S. anti-cult movement which had been defeated in court by the Fishman decision in 1990. These theories postulate that nobody can perform such extreme acts as ritualised suicide and homicide, unless he or she had been brainwashed by an evil guru. The tragedies are thus interpreted as retrospective evidence of brainwashing. Since brainwashing also occurs in hundreds of other movements, however, anti-brainwashing laws will have to be put in place if further tragedies are to be avoided. In Europe, French psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall (1996, 1999) emerged as the chief spokesperson for this theory. Despite legal setbacks, including in 2001, when (his expert report notwithstanding) French conductor Michel Tabachnik (the only surviving former OTS leader, on trial in Grenoble) was found not guilty of having used brainwashing techniques to provoke the Solar Temple suicides, Abgrall was nonetheless extremely influential in the preparation of parliamentary and administrative reports published in France (Assemblée Nationale 1996 and 1999), Belgium (Chambre des Répresentants de Belgique 1997) and the Swiss Canton of Geneva (Audit sur les dérives sectaires 1997) (while reports in other European countries were somewhat more moderate: see Richardson and Introvigne 2001). Abgrall is also an influential member of the French governmental institution known as the Mission to Fight Cults (Mission interministerielle de lutte contre les sectes), and was likewise instrumental in the drafting of the French anti-cult law of May 30, 2001, providing inter alia, by way of an amendment to the pre-existing section 223 of the French Criminal Code, that "determining a state of psychological subjection" through either "serious pressures" or "techniques likely to alter the judgement" shall be punished by a three year term of imprisonment.
A different anti-cult explanation of the tragedies, not based on brainwashing, is offered by a loose coalition of skeptics and secular humanists, who have found a chief spokesperson in the University of Haifa psychologist Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. During the first cult wars of the 1980s, Beit-Hallahmi was instrumental in defeating the brainwashing argument. He was one of the external reviewers whose strongly negative opinions led to the rejection by the American Psychological Association in 1987 of the DIMPAC (Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control) report, drafted by a commission headed by Margaret Singer, a leading figure in the U.S. anti-cult movement, and and expounder of the anti-cult brainwashing theory. In one of the two lawsuits filed in 1994 against several scholars and scholarly associations, Margaret Singer alleged that "upon information and belief, Beit-Hallahmi had at the time  established an academic reputation of being protective of the type of coercive psychological cults whose abuses DIMPAC had been charged with investigating" (Singer and Ofshe 1994, 19 [no. 105]). During the second cult war period, Beit-Hallahmi showed no sign of having revised his long-held opinion on brainwashing. He proposed, in fact, a much more simple explanation of the tragedies, and of cults in general. The suicides and homicides can be explained, he contends, by the fact that cult leaders were simply "crazy" as were their followers; and by the additional fact that they were also money-hungry "rascals" and frauds. In papers bitterly critical of new religious movements (NRM) scholars, Beit-Hallahmi accused them of not seeing the obvious, i.e. that cult leaders are in fact mad. "Marshall Applewhite was crazy, as was David Koresh"; "the denial of madness in general is tied to the denial of pathology in groups, but the pathology is visible to all, except NRM researchers" (Beit-Hallahmi 2001). Followers, in turn, follow crazy gurus, because their "pathology" matches that of their leaders. Again, only "collaborationist" NRM scholars are unable to see this: "defending NRMs and denying psychopathology in the seekers are connected. Denying evil deeds ascribed to NRMs is tied to denying the stigma of pathology in NRM members". In addition to this, Beit-Hallahmi believes that most cult leaders are "con artists" and "religious hustlers"; of course, "you can be both deranged and a hustler, as shown by Luc Jouret". The Israeli scholar believes that this explanation of cults applies not only to groups which end up committing suicides and homicides. It is much more general than that. Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (1805-1844), and early Pentecostal leader Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), are both quoted as examples of "cynical hustlers and fakes". Beit-Hallahmi ridicules scholars claiming that "Aum Shinrikyo was an aberration, and the Solar Temple was an aberration, and David Koresh was an aberration ( ) and so on and on". To him, these incidents are simply typical of "cults" in general. He contends that "in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders, critics, and detractors have sometimes been closer to the reality than any other accounts". In fact, Beit-Hallahmis generalizations are even wider. "How do we explain religious conversion?" - he writes - "Conversion is an exceptional (some would say anomalous) behaviour, occurring in a tiny proportion of religious believers". Not only is conversion a "highly unusual" behaviour, but "psychopathology" is seen as its key factor. One may voice the objection that, in this case, "psychopathology" is exceedingly common; to which Beit-Hallahmi answers that this is indeed the case. "Unfortunately, he writes, schizophrenia is not a social construction and can be found in all human societies at a constant ratio of around 1 to 100 ( ). As a result, in every generation and in every culture, a significant minority of humanity does reach a point of self-destructive regression in its attempt to cope with reality". This is seen as the root of religious conversion in general, and of cults in particular.
Both theories were, of course, criticized by NRM scholars (who also had to defend themselves against ad hominem attacks, repeated by anti-cultists over the Internet). They asserted that both models explained, at the same time, too much and too little. They explained too much, since they were in fact general theories of religion, only unsympathetic to religions in general. For Beit-Hallahmi, any and all instances of religious conversion derive from psychopathology. Similarly, and bearing in mind that brainwashing is different from sheer madness, Abgrall (1996, 1999) includes in his examples of brainwashing perpetrators: Mormons, Pentecostals, American Evangelicals, and a wide variety of religionists. Because they are so general, both theories fail to explain what really distinguishes movements which resort to mass homicide and suicide from law-abiding religious groups. For Beit-Hallahmi, both the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and the OTS leaders were hustlers and frauds; for Abgrall, both Mormons and Solar Templars used brainwashing. Why exactly the Mormons have never organized mass suicides and homicides, while the Solar Templars did, is not explained. Beit-Hallahmis claim that we should rely on hostile accounts by ex-members, anti-cultists, and journalists, regarded as generally more reliable than NRM scholars, is also not very helpful. The only instance of journalists and critics denouncing criminal activities not detected as such by scholars was the Aum Shinri-kyo incident. Heavens Gate was largely ignored by anti-cultists and journalists after the 1970s; its early activities were surely more accurately described by the scholarly accounts of Robert Balch than by the few sensationalist journalistic accounts of the time. Ugandas Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was unknown to scholars and anti-cultists alike before the tragedy. The Solar Temple was briefly studied by one scholar (Mayer 1993), who was able to gather more background information than the few anti-cultists and journalists writing about it in Quebec and elsewhere. Although Mayer certainly did not predict mass suicides and homicides, neither did the anti-cultists and journalists (some of whom, quite wrongly, preferred to accuse the Templars of preparing terrorist activities in Quebec). Speaking generally, it would be quite difficult to argue seriously that more reliable information about the Mormons could be gathered from anti-Mormon accounts than from the extensive scholarly literature on the subject - or, for that matter, that if one wanted to be informed about the Roman Catholic Church, one should use anti-Catholic literature as the starting point.
Another important question raised by scholarly critics of the anti-cult position, is that it is somewhat naïve to consider each movement only in terms of its internal dynamics, while in fact all movements operate in a continuous interaction with society at large. Waco was, of course, a textbook case of deviance amplification, and the opinion that the tragedy would not have happened had the law enforcement agencies acted with greater insight and caution is widely shared. It is also argued, and is particularly emphasized in studies authored or edited by Catherine Wessinger (1999, 2000), that in the Solar Temple case harassment and opposition by police authorities in several countries played a decisive role in the events leading up to the tragedy. In other cases (even if real opposition was reduced to ridicule via the Internet for Heavens Gate, and is difficult to evaluate in Uganda), perceived opposition may still have been quite significant.
The question, however, remains of why, faced with opposition and even outright persecution, some groups react by resorting to violence, while in others cooler tempers prevail. After all, Jehovahs Witnesses endured much more severe persecution (including execution of its members by both totalitarian and democratic regimes during times of war) than Aum Shinri-kyo or the Solar Temple, yet they did not even think of responding through terrorism or of organizing collective suicides. The same is obviously true for many other religious movements too. What, then, do groups such as the Solar Temple, Aum Shinri-kyo, Heavens Gate and the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God have in common? What features, if any, do they share that are not shared with hundreds of other new religious movements throughout the world? The question is obviously of crucial importance for law enforcement agencies. After Waco, the FBI decided that part of the problem was that it did not have enough information about new religious movements, and that relying solely on anti-cult sources had been catastrophically wrong. As a result, it approached the American Academy of Religion as well as several individual scholars, and in the late 1990s developed an extensive program of co-operation with scholars of new religious movements . In contacts with the scholars, the FBI (and later non-U.S. law enforcement agencies) clarified that they needed a model capable of identifying the small number of religious movements which would be likely, given certain external circumstances, to resort to violence. They also maintained that any model stating that all religions, or hundreds of new religious movements or "cults", may eventually resort to violence, was not useful for law enforcement purposes, since no law enforcement agency in the world has the necessary resources for keeping hundreds of movements under control. They absolutely needed to restrict the field. French authorities have constantly refused to co-operate with international scholars of new religious movements (whom they regard as hired guns for the cults), but even in France voices have been heard calling law enforcement and anti-cult agencies to focus on the few "absolute cults" (sectes absolues), rather than on the 173 movements listed in the 1996 parliamentary report (with additional movements added in 1999) (see Hervieu-Léger 2001, 51-52). The problem in France is, obviously: on the basis of what information can "absolute cults" be identified? If information is provided by the same unreliable anti-cult sources which influenced the 1996 and 1999 reports, then it would not be unreasonable to predict that results will be no less unreliable. This does not mean, on the other hand, that it would be impossible to identify what kind of religious movements would be likely to resort to suicide, homicide, and terrorism in the face of certain external or internal events. Mayer and I have tried to understand what the Solar Temple, Heavens Gate, and the Peoples Temple in Jonestown had in common. We concluded that not only did they react to perceived threats from outside, but they also propagated a theology that encouraged group members to regard themselves as "not of this world". This, in turn, led to the conclusion that, as stated in one Heavens Gate document, "there is no place for us to go but up", particularly when the groups had been shaken by the defection of important members. We concluded that "deep estrangement from this world, perceived opposition by former members well-acquainted with the inner dealings of the group, threats from outside agencies (real or imaginary) and the feeling that there was no possible way to escape but up seem to constitute an ideal combination of factors leading to self-destructive and criminal behaviour in small religious groups" (Introvigne and Mayer 2001). Without accepting the rhetoric of "crazy gurus", we also added that "the role (and mental condition) of the leader of the group seems to be decisive in persuading followers either to choose the radical option, or to adjust as well as possible to adverse circumstances".
I believe that further research in this field is relevant both in terms of maintaining a fruitful co-operation between NRM scholars and law enforcement agencies, and in stimulating a genuine dialogue between the same scholars and the more moderate elements in the cult awareness and "cult critics" community (not to be confused with the extremist fringe engaging in name-calling, ad hominen attacks, and explicit support for governmental persecution of religious minorities in France, Russia or China). It is my personal opinion that a good step for such a dialogue would be to revisit the original academic literature on thought reform and totalitarian influence. During both the first and the second cult wars, authors such as Robert Jay Lifton and Edgar H. Schein were quoted in support of a crude brainwashing rhetoric. As Dick Anthony (1996) conclusively proved, although occasionally both Lifton and Schein may have regarded "cults" as unpalatable and have expressed some degree of support for certain anti-cult enterprises, brainwashing arguments (built around the idea that conversions to cults are involuntary, and are the result of extrinsic and powerful techniques), and totalitarian influence arguments à la Lifton and Schein, are certainly not identical. In fact, Lifton cautioned not to "use the word brainwashing because it has no precise meaning and has been associated with much confusion" (Lifton 1987, 211), and Schein (1961, 254) ridiculed crude brainwashing theories as "demonology" in disguise. Theirs are much more complicated models, built around the premise that conversions to totalitarian ideologies, religious or otherwise, result from the interaction between influence techniques, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from those at work in many other social settings, predisposing individual factors (most of them interpreted according to Erik H. Eriksons [1902-1994] psychoanalytic model, with its reference to childhood problems), and philosophical predispositions, i.e. "a genuine interest in such ideologies" (Anthony 1996, 125; see Lifton 1989 and Schein 1961). Schein (1961, 285) concluded his seminal 1961 book by stating that when we in the West disapprove of "coercive persuasion" as practiced in Communist China, what we really disapprove of is the content of an influence which is not intrinsically different from similar processes occurring in the West. "In putting our emphasis on the content of the influence, Schein wrote, we have often tended to overlook similarities in the nature of the influence process. There is a world of difference in the content that is transmitted in religious orders, prisons, educational institutions, mental hospitals, and [Chinese] thought reform centres. But there are striking similarities in the manner in which the influence occurs, a fact which should warn us strenuously against letting our moral and political sentiments colour our scientific understanding of the Chinese Communist approach to influence".
More recently, Lifton (1999) devoted his attention to Aum Shinri-kyo and recognized that criteria are needed in order to distinguish criminal "cults" such as Aum from hundreds of other groups that he also considers to be "cults", "totalist" and practising thought reform, but whose activities "are not necessarily illegal, however we may deplore them" (Lifton 1987, 211 - "totalism", for Lifton, includes Protestant Fundamentalism, Islamic Fundamentalism, and political ideologies such as "nuclearism" and the widespread American advocacy of the capital punishment). Although Liftons reconstruction of the history of Aum Shinri-kyo has been criticized by other scholars (see Reader 2000), his attempt to distinguish from the larger world of "cults" and totalist groups a sub-category of "world-destroying cults" characterized by "totalized guruism", "attack guruism" and violence points in my opinion to a valid area of investigation. Lifton (1999, 202-213) lists seven characteristics of "world-destroying cults" as typified by Aum Shinri-kyo: (1) "totalized guruism", whereby the principle "no deity beyond the guru" is carried to the extreme of "desymbolization", i.e. the loss of the ability to distinguish between reality and metaphor, in the case of both guru and disciple; (2) "a vision of an apocalyptic event or series of events that would destroy the world in the service of renewal"; (3) an "ideology of killing to heal, of altruistic murder and altruistic world destruction"; (4) "the relentless impulse toward world-rejecting purification"; (5) "the lure of ultimate weapons" (from sarin gas to the atomic bomb); (6) "a shared state of aggressiveness", in which any scruples about acting illegally are eliminated; and (7) "a claim to absolute scientific truth" associated with the use of technical devices (such as, in the case of Aum, hallucinogenic drugs) to transform disciples and perform an "extreme technocratic manipulation".
It is easy to see that most, if not all, of these criteria are content-oriented. While brainwashing rhetoric claims to be content-neutral, and to focus on deeds (i.e. the use of manipulative and illegal techniques) rather than creeds, both Lifton and Schein in fact regard content as crucial. According to Schein (1961, 277), crude brainwashing theories are wrong when they argue that techniques used in "such varied institutions as [Western] education, hospitals, religious training, salesmanship, and [Chinese] thought reform are intrinsically different", and that thought reform includes some mysterious, esoteric tool, thus making it infallible. In fact, this is not the case; on the contrary, "ultimately what distinguishes processes like education, therapy, etc. [from Chinese thought reform and] from each other is their goals and the content of the material which defines the outcome". We (i.e. American public opinion in 1961), argues Schein, condemn Chinese thought reform because certain techniques were used in order to persuade both Chinese and American prisoners that Communism is true, and that the United States is the country of imperialism and warmongering, while at the same time we approve the use of the same techniques in prisons, military academies, and similar institutions when their aim is the opposite, i.e. precisely to persuade the inmates or students that the American way of life is a positive and desirable lifestyle. Lifton condemns in "world-destroying cults" not only the use of torture and drugs (which, he says, may or may not occur) but also the propagation of an ideology which rationalizes illegal actions, and claims that ritualised killing may ultimately have a sacred purpose and be beneficial to the victims themselves.
Obviously, there is no easy way to predict which religious movements may become involved in terrorism, violence, or suicide. All models could be purely tentative, after all no prediction is infallible, and human behaviour is often unpredictable. On the other hand, a comparative study of a number of tragic incidents which took place in the 1990s, and a revisitation of the very much misinterpreted original Lifton-Schein literature about thought reform and influence, may support the conclusion that trying to predict violence on the basis of purely content-neutral models, focusing only on the persuasion and influence techniques or the psychological (if not psychopathological) state of the leaders, will probably not lead to any fruitful conclusion. As both Schein and Lifton ultimately concluded, while the study of influence techniques is important, what ultimately makes a religious or political group likely to behave in a certain way is the content of its teachings, and not simply how these teachings are imparted to its followers. This also means that both social scientists and cult critics may find new ground for dialogue by focusing more on the content of each movements teachings rather than concentrating solely on their persuasion and socialization techniques. Obviously, the aim of such an enterprise would not be to produce a theological or philosophical evaluation of whether these teachings are true or false. While this should remain foreign to both a value-free scholarly enterprise and to a secular watchdog cult awareness activity, both camps may come to regard as perfectly legitimate the observation of certain historical and social regularities, on which to conclude that certain doctrines are more likely than others to lead to self-destruction and violence.
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Zablocki, Benjamin and Thomas Robbins (eds.). 2001 (forthcoming). Misunderstanding Cults. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
1. CESNUR the Centre for Studies on New Religions (whose managing director is the undersigned), organized in 1999 a seminar for FBI agents in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in co-operation with the Critical Incidents Response Group of the FBI. A number of well-known scholars of new religious movements delivered lectures and discussed potential problems with the agents. This lead to similar initiatives being organized with law enforcement agencies inside and outside the United States. [back]
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