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We have studied the evolution of chemical state of the metallic layers in NiFe/Al oxide/NiFe tunnel junction structures in as-deposited films and after postdeposition annealing. Both top and bottom NiFe layers in as-deposited films show significant Fe oxidation, but no Ni oxidation. This Fe is reduced in annealed samples, implying that oxygen migrates from the FeNi layers, possibly into the Al oxide layer. We also find that both top and bottom electrodes are significantly oxidized even in optimally annealed films. © 2001 American Institute of Physics.