Trials for Alleged 9/11 Plotters Resume at Guantanamo Bay

Lost in the shuffle during a week where the NSA scandal has dominated headlines is more news coming out of Guantanamo Bay.  On Monday, the government released the identity of Guantanamo’s “indefinite detainees,” or those who the government has deemed too dangerous for release regardless of whether they can be tried in a military court.  The government has already announced that a number of these detainees will be held indefinitely even though they cannot be tried due to lack of evidence. The names have been kept secret since 2009 when multiple agencies investigated files on detainees in order to support President Obama’s initial effort to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  Normally these detainees could not be constitutionally held without the possibility of trial, but in 2001 Congress authorized the practice with the “Authorization of Military Force” bill.

Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international have condemned the idea of “indefinite detainees,” calling for the release of all prisoners that the government has no intention of trying in a court of law.  Some men on the “indefinite detainees” list are actively involved in the well-documented hunger strikes.  At least two, both Afghani men, are deceased, with one committing suicide and the other dying of natural causes in Camp 6.  While the practice of holding detainees without the possibility of trial may be controversial, the release of their identities is a small step towards the transparency and legitimacy that human rights groups have been calling for in recent years.

In other Guantanamo-related news, pre-trial hearings for five men accused of plotting the September 11th attacks resumed on Monday, four months after CIA listening devices were discovered in conference rooms used by the detainees’ attorneys.  Included in this group is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks.  The hearings included statements from defense attorneys claiming that CIA personnel tortured the detainees while they were being held in overseas prisons prior to their transfer to Guantanamo Bay.  They have also filed motions to dismiss the case due to meddling by senior military officials.

Also present in the courtroom were two victims and family members of three other victims that perished in the attacks.  The observers met with prosecutors and defense attorneys earlier in the week and pleaded for a quick and efficient trial.  At least one victim, a firefighter who was injured by falling rubble in the aftermath of the attacks, is expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution.  As one could imagine, the trials will probably not be very speedy.  Detainee trials at Guantanamo have been ridiculed for many reasons, one of the biggest being that they are inefficient and often take years to complete.  These particular observers have been waiting on an outcome for some twelve years.  Although the trials are resuming, we may have to wait a lot longer to see a resolution.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Update: New Information on NSA Surveillance Scandal

Last week I wrote about the breaking story that the NSA has been monitoring phone records after obtaining a court order that allowed them to collect data from Verizon Wireless.  As I noted, feelings on the issue are split.  An editorial from the New York Times claimed that the Obama administration had “lost all credibility on the issue,” and that the government was clearly abusing its power.  The Washington Post took a similar stance, but called for more information on the matter before the public jumped to conclusions.  Over the weekend, more information came to light that might help us paint a better picture of what exactly the NSA’s telephone surveillance program entailed.

Most of the new information about the NSA’s PRISM program came from the whistleblower himself, Edward Snowden, and ex-CIA employee.  Snowden is currently living in Hong Kong to avoid prosecution by the federal government for leaking the story.  He provided The Guardian, the British news agency that first broke the story, with a 12-minute video interview that you can watch here.  In the interview, Snowden claimed to have had the authority to spy on any American citizen, including the President.  He claimed to have leaked the information because of some of the same concerns I voiced last week.  In particular, he said that he did not want to live in a society that secretly monitors its citizens, especially those who have done nothing wrong.

So basically what we have learned is that between the CIA and NSA, the federal government had virtually unlimited power to monitor U.S. citizens, even those in the most powerful positions.  It would appear that the government needed no probable cause of any kind to place surveillance on these people.  I think it’s safe to say that most people’s initial reaction to any instance of government surveillance is outrage.  As I said before, we are a freedom- and privacy-loving people.  But it’s also important to look at all perspectives before jumping to conclusions.

First things first, the government is not in an enviable position.  Charged with protecting over 300 million citizens, agencies like the NSA and CIA have a monumental task in detecting and thwarting terrorist attacks against the United States.  Incidents like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attacks showed just how susceptible we can be to terrorism without implementing a proactive approach.  Because of this, there seems to be a general consensus that the government must have some type of surveillance and intelligence gathering programs.  The trouble is in deciding just how extensive and intrusive these programs should be.  If the government backs off on its surveillance programs and an attack occurs, the public will be outraged and ask why more wasn’t done to protect them.  On the other hand, in situations like this where the government is perceived as having gone too far, the public is also outraged.  The happy medium, if it exists at all, would be extremely difficult to find.  So if the public is going to be outraged regardless of which stance the government takes, it makes sense to some extent that the government would take a proactive stance that might actually prevent attacks and prevent American deaths.

Second, we have to look at what the government was searching for in the records acquired from Verizon.  So far, it appears that the NSA was not listening to individual phone calls or audio recordings.  From what we know thus far the NSA was simply analyzing data for patterns that might uncover terrorist activity within the U.S., which most would consider a legitimate government concern.  Nothing so far points to the government using the collected data for censorship purposes, or anything unrelated to preventing terrorism for that matter.

Having said that, I am not trying to convince anybody that the government did the right thing.  Determining what the right thing even is in this situation is an extremely difficult task, and there probably isn’t a concrete answer.  There is certainly a chance that the government may abuse its power any time it monitors its citizens, but we still don’t have all the facts to make a determination on whether or not they were.  And, especially at a time when confidence in our government is so low, public outcry against the NSA is understandable and maybe warranted.  Even so, when we look at this situation we have to keep it in perspective.  One of the government’s many jobs, and more specifically the NSA’s job, it to protect the public from terrorist attacks, and so far it looks like that is what the PRISM program is intended to do.  More facts are sure to come to light in the following days and weeks, and we might want to reserve judgment until then.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

CIA whistleblower/leaker John Kiriakou foils government plot to retaliate against him

John Kiriakou, the former CIA clandestine officer who was recently sent to Loretto Federal Corrections Institute on charges of leaking the identity of a fellow CIA officer, has written a letter to the public about his experiences in prison. Kiriakou maintains that his prosecution for the leak was in retaliation for his whistleblowing on the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (or EITs) which most now consider to be torture.

While the letter is a very interesting view into life in a federal prison, the event that takes pride of place is an incident in which the prison’s internal security personnel attempted to trick Kiriakou into getting into a fight with another inmate. However, it would seem that tricking a former operative of the US Clandestine Service is not as easy as they thought.

According to Kiriakou, the Special Investigative Service (or SIS), which investigates crimes or other breaches at the prison, pulled Kiriakou into their office to tell him that another inmate was the uncle of the Times Square Bomber, and had received orders from Pakistan to kill Kiriakou. Instead of being intimidated, Kiriakou, who had by this time made friends with just about everyone in the prison, simply walked up to the guy and talked to him. As it turns out, the SIS had told the other inmate (who had nothing to do with the Times Square Bomber) that Washington had ordered Kiriakou to kill him. Kiriakou postulates that the purpose of this plot was to get them to fight and thus produce an excuse to send them both to solitary.

Needless to say, if this story is true, it is should be a scandal. Even if the SIS were operating entirely independently and hatched this half-baked plot on their own, the use of a federal office to not only incite violence, but also to endanger a former CIA officer would be an unforgivable breach of the public trust. So far, little has been reported on this, or anything else related to Kiriakou’s  time in prison.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

President Obama to give speech on counterterrorism policy, drones, and GMTO

President Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech on Thursday at the National Defence University on the administration’s counterterrorism policies, and how it intends to bring those policies in line with his long-standing pledge to honor the rule of law.

According to a White House official, speaking anonymously to the Washington Post Saturday, President Obama will “discuss our broad counterterrorism policy, including our military, diplomatic, intelligence and legal efforts.”

“He will review the state of the threats we face, particularly as the al-Qaeda core has weakened but new dangers have emerged,” the official said. “He will discuss the policy and legal framework under which we take action against terrorist threats, including the use of drones. And he will review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.”

This speech could go some way toward fulfilling the promise that President Obama made in his 2013 State of the Union address, in which he proclaimed that his new administration would “ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” Many, including myself, have been disappointed with the level of transparency the administration has maintained regarding national security efforts over the last 4 years or so. 

The speech comes at a time of increasing unrest in the national security arena. Indeed, it has already been delayed due to the hunger strike at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility and the brouhaha over the Justice Department’s subpoena of the AP’s phone records. While the events at Guantanamo Bay can to some degree be attributed to the policies of the Bush administration (in opening the prison) and to Congress (in refusing to allow it to close), the AP seizure is something that rests firmly in Obama’s lap, and is indicative of his Justice Department’s approach in general. Rather than increasing transparency, Obama’s Justice Department has been ruthless in suppressing leaks and punishing leakers.

While I have no sympathy for the likes of Bradley Manning, the number of prosecutions related to national security leaks has been higher under Obama than his predecessors, with at least some chilling effect on the “unofficial transparency” that leaks tend to serve. And while Obama has recently pushed for a new Federal shield law to protect reporters’ sources, his downright schizophrenic approach to transparency has been a bitter disappointment. Hopefully, Thursday’s speech will help to alleviate that disappointment.

 

 

Is the FBI more dangerous to civil liberties when it REFUSES to record?

In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, lawyer Harvey Silverglate claims that the FBI follows a policy of not recording interviews with suspects and witnesses in order to be able to put words in their mouth. He points specifically to the case of Robel Phillipos, who was recently arrested and charged with making materially false statements during the course of the investigation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect in the Boston bombing.

Mr. Silverglate has a point. Without electronic recording, the FBI agent can sit in the interview room, taking whatever notes he pleases, and then later attribute those statements to the interviewee. The interviewee, in disputing the statements, risks prosecution for the same crime now being alleged against Robel Phillipos. Mr. Silverglate apparently thinks that creating this opportunity is the reason for the FBI’s policy.

But there are a couple of problems with this theory. First, to do this would be a crime–the same crime that Robel Phillipos is charge with in fact, along with a couple of others. Second, the FBI do not want to soil their own evidence. Even apart from the implications for admissibility or weight, if it becomes known that an agent is falsifying witness statements, false witness statements only harm the investigation by adding incorrect information into an already complex picture.

Last, but not least, Mr Silverglate doesn’t address the one feature that may help to level the playing field between the FBI and the witness: the jury. A witness statement is not at all like a piece of physical evidence. The jury does not simply note that it exists (theoretically, the jury doesn’t even stop here for physical evidence). Instead, when confronted with the claimed falsification of the statement, the jury will decide which of the two parties they believe is telling the truth. Ignoring this aspect severely undercuts Mr. Silverglate’s argument.

However, in the end, his point still stands. Why, with the ubiquity of hand-held recording devices (like the on in your pocket or purse that rings from time to time), doesn’t the FBI record all interviews as a matter of course. If for some reason a recorder cannot be found, they can always revert back to their paper-only method, and explain to the jury why they had to do so. But it would effectively remove the possibility of interviewees claiming that they were misquoted or that their statements were falsified. And in this respect Mr. Silverglate is correct. This should be a non-issue.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Fed’s handling of Tsarnaev draws criticism (and praise)

After capturing the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect on Friday, the FBI decided to invoke the public safety exception to the Miranda requirement. This decision has generated much debate about the rights that should be afforded to terrorism suspects, whether a distinction should be drawn between foreign and domestic terrorist suspects, and who qualifies as which.

According to the ACLU, while authorities should be able to question Tsarnaev about imminent threats, using the public safety exception “to create the case against the suspect” would be “wholly inappropriate and unconstitutional.”  In this they are absolutely correct. This exception was created not as an investigatory tool, but as an excuse for officers who, under pressing circumstances and in the heat of the moment, ask a question of a suspect, such as “where is the bomb?” or “which way did your accomplice run?” It was a failsafe to allow officers who ask questions with the sole purpose of ensuring public safety before read the suspect their rights to still be able to introduce the suspects responses in court. It was not intended to create a tactic by which police could intentionally delay mirandizing suspects.

Relatedly,  several Republican politicians have argued that Tsarnaev should be officially labelled an “enemy combatant” in order to remove procedural hurdles to national security investigations. For example, as an enemy combatant, Tsarnaev would not be entitled to the a lawyer during interrogation. These lawmakers hope that by removing the Miranda warning and its attendant rights, the authorities may be  better able to probe possible links to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Of course, there is as yet no indication that there are any such links, and if there are, the 4th and 5th Amendments have generally not gotten in the way of finding out. For example, “Millennium Bomber”Ahmed Ressam gave up all of his contacts shortly after being caught and interrogated by the FBI under full Constitutional protection. In fact, facing 130 years in prison, he sang like a bird for 4 years while his sentencing was put on hold. (The uber-liberal Ninth Circuit has since ruled that Ressam’s 22-year sentence was too lenient, and placed an effective floor of 65 year on the sentence.)

But this has not stopped some Republican lawmakers from claiming the need to apply extraordinary measures to “foreign” terrorists. However, they seem to have hit a snag here, since Tsarnaev is a naturalized US citizen, not that they let this get in the way. In fact, Senator Lindsey Graham went so far as to advocate using racial and religious profiling to to determine if Constitutional protections should apply:

“You can’t hold every person who commits a terrorist attack as an enemy combatant, I agree with that. But you have a right, with his radical Islamist ties and the fact that Chechens are all over the world fighting with Al Qaeda — I think you have a reasonable belief to go down that road, and it would be a big mistake not to go down that road. If we didn’t hold him for intelligence-gathering purposes, that would be unconscionable.”

So, according to Senator Graham. if they are Chechen and/or Muslim, screw their rights.

Discrimination aside, Sen. Graham seems to have forgotten that we don’t need to hold Tsarnaev for intelligence gathering purposes, since he’s already being held for criminal prosecution. This gives the FBI and other Federal investigators ample access to him for intelligence gathering purposes.

Indeed, holding Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant could jeopardize the government’s ability to try him, since Military Commissions have no jurisdiction over US citizens, and the latter trying him in civilian courts could trigger problems with speedy trial protections and admissibility of the evidence obtained without 4th and 5th Amendment protections.

For additional commentary on the Tsarnaev case, the following were collected by Fordham’s Center on National Security:

New York Times: “Mr. Graham’s reckless statement makes a mockery of the superb civilian police work that led to the suspect’s capture….Fortunately the Obama administration has ignored the posturing and declared that Mr. Tsarnaev, like all citizens and even alien terrorists captured on American soil, will be tried in the federal courts.”

Wall Street Journal: “The flap over reading [Tsarnaev] his Miranda rights is a largely irrelevant distraction. … The important security issue isn’t convicting Dzhokhar but finding out what he knows that might prevent a future attack or break up a terror network. This is where naming him an enemy combatant would be useful.”

New Yorker: Does the public exception to the Miranda “grant the police a limited ability to ask where a bomb is or which way an accomplice ran, and use the answers in court? Or is it a free forty-eight-hour questioning coupon the government gets for calling someone a terrorist?”

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Abu Ghaith Trial Postponed Due to the Sequester

It seems as though the already controversial Federal trial of Usama Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, may be in jeopardy- at least temporarily.

Abu Ghaith’s trial began on March 8 when he pled not guilty to conspiracy charges based on intelligence pointing to possible connections with Al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks.  Prior to Monday, Abu Ghaith’s trial was scheduled to begin as early as September.  However, the recent sequester that has slashed federal government spending will now push proceedings back as far as 2014.

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Abu Ghaith’s public defenders argued that blanket budget cuts of 5.1 per cent would not allow them to adequately defend their client, especially given the gravity of the charges against him.  In addition, the budget cuts will force the defense team to take at least a five-week unpaid furlough this fall.  The prosecutors also requested a postponement, agreeing with the defense that the sequester will place a heavy burden on both sides during trial preparation.  Judge Lewis Kaplain called the delay “troublesome,” noting that it was difficult to contemplate that such a high-profile case would be delayed due to budget difficulties.  Still, he agreed and set the trial date for January 7, 2014.

In addition to pushing the trial back, the defense also moved to strike a 22-page statement made by Abu Ghaith shortly after he was turned over to U.S. forces in Jordan.  They also said they will seek a venue change, partly due to the close proximity to the Manhattan federal courthouse to the former site of the World Trade Center, which they believe may have an effect on the jury’s verdict.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith Prosecution Begins in NYC

This morning Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Usama Bin Laden, pleaded not guilty to the charge of conspiracy to kill Americans. Interestingly, this took place not in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, but in federal court in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks.

While Abu Ghaith’s connection to the 9/11 attacks is disputed, he is charged with publicly praising the 9/11 attacks and supporting al Qaeda/UBL for nearly 15 years. Numerous sources cite him as being the most senior al Qaeda member to be tried in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the decision to hold his trial in federal court has drawn significant criticism from the press, politicians, and the public- and it was just announced yesterday. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg is quoted as saying “Would I prefer to have it [the prosecution of Abu Ghaith] elsewhere? I’m not going to get involved in that because I don’t want to make the president’s job any more difficult.” Other political leaders were not so diplomatic, Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte described the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute Abu Ghaith in federal court as “sneaky” and contradictory to the will of Congress.

Today was just a simple 20-minute arraignment, but given the press and publicity Abu Ghaith has received thus far, his prosecution seems like it will be a lengthy and contentious process.

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

The 9/11 Five’s Defense Counsel Granted Limited Visitation Privileges to “Camp 7″

Judge James Pohl has granted the defense counsel in the 9/11 military commission limited access to Camp 7, the top secret prison home of the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four co-defendants.

The defense counsel teams initially requested a 48-hour access stint, which included the ability to sleepover with their clients once per month. The Prosecution proposed a cursory two-hour tour of Camp 7.

On Tuesday, Judge Pohl ruled that, for one time only, up to three members of each defense team could visit their respective clients in Camp 7 for no longer than 12 continuous hours. The visitation privilege was limited to the hours between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

No doubt about it: this is a big deal. Camp 7 is one of the most top-secret facilities on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Even its very location is classified. Not to mention, this ruling comes one week after Camp 7 military police ransacked some of the defendants’ legal bins and seized already screened and approved personal items. The defense was in uproar last week, interpreting this as another attempt by the government to intrude on attorney-client privileged communications.

While the defense teams will be permitted to take notes, make sketches, and pictures during their visit, it is no surprise that those materials will be subject to inspection.

Commander Ruiz Angers Admiral MacDonald

Recapping the fourth and last day of last week’s 9/11 military commission hearings at Guantanamo Bay, presiding Judge James Pohl promised to address “the bin issue” after lunch.

But first, the court heard testimony from Admiral Bruce MacDonald, the Director of the Office of the Convening Authority and the presiding Convening Authority for the Office of Military Commissions. Commander Walter Ruiz, defense Counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s co-defendant Mr. al-Hawsawi, argued that MacDonald inappropriately approved the 9/11 five’s eligibility for death sentences before each had been provided with an appropriate amount of informed legal advice.

A veritable screaming match erupted when Ruiz rhetorically asked, “Admiral, can a capital defense lawyer—who doesn’t have a translator that speaks the defendant’s language, who doesn’t have a mitigation expert, and who cannot communicate in writing with his client—present adequate mitigation evidence?”

Ruiz explained that he was without the help of a mitigation specialist—a defense team’s psychologist of sorts, who possesses clinical information-gathering skills enabling him or her to extract from the defendant sensitive, sometimes embarrassing and often humiliating evidence that will shape a defense attorney’s themes and theories of the case. Ruiz argued that while it is true that MacDonald had approved a particular mitigation specialist, he was of no beneficial use because MacDonald refused to approve his security clearance. So, although Ruiz’s mitigation specialist could speak to Mr. al-Hawsawi, he could not speak with him about any of the pressing classified issues—like his experience with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Also, Ruiz was without an approved personal translator, and was instead relegated to use a cadre of government-provided translators that had independent contracts with JTF-GTMO (Ruiz disputes having rejected eight translators).

Approaching lunch break, Judge Pohl asked MacDonald if he would agree to be interviewed by the defense. No, he answered. But then objected to interviews without a government official present.

Ruiz turned to sit down from the podium, but quickly returned as if he had forgotten something, and added with some sarcasm, “Judge, I will simply indicate as an officer of the United States Navy, I am a member of the government.”

“Commander, I’m more than aware of that,” Judge Pohl said, while nodding and smirking.

Admiral MacDonald will be recalled later in the hearings.

“The Bin Issue”

Ms. Cheryl Bormann, Learned Counsel for co-defendant Mr. bin ‘Attash, announced at the end of Wednesday’s hearing that when her client, Mr. bin ‘Attash, lead defendant Mr. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and another co-defendant returned to their cells after Tuesday’s session, their legal bins containing attorney-client privileged mail had been ransacked and some items were seized. Bormann summoned Navy Lieutenant Commander George Massucco, Assistant Staff Judge Advocate for JTF-GTMO, to take the stand.

Massucco, whose name was laughably butchered a dozen times before he was forced to spell it out for counsel, confirmed that there had been a routine inspection and items were seized, but the SJA Office has since determined that the items would be returned to the three co-defendants. He informed the court that the seized documents, mostly photos (one of the Grand Mosque in Mecca), were seized because they were improperly stamped and without initials.

Bormann alleged that the inspection protocol and stamping system was flawed in its practice. The guard staff conducting inspections, she explained, were re-screening documents that had already been approved by J2—documents that had been in the defendants’ cells, in some cases, for over a year and half. Having passed thousands of inspections since 2011, it is strange, she said, that they are being seized now. Her concern heightened when she learned that  a turnover in the guard force—what Massucco called an Army-Navy “rip”—was taking place.

“But as I see it, it’s not going to really matter who does the inspection if the inspection keeps happening. The seizure of the same mail, the same materials over and over and over, whether that seizure is done by a PRT person or whether that’s done by the guard force— it boarders on harassment,” Bormann pleaded.

“I got it,” Judge Pohl said.

Chief Prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins tried to cool the tension radiating from the defense’s side of the room. He explained that the inspection was routine, and the defense counsel teams unanimously agreed that such a procedure is reasonable and necessary in order to protect against a legitimate national security risk. The seizure, he explained, was a competent response to the same protocol that has been used by the “old hands” and is currently being taught to the “new hands.”

Bormann demanded the need for some common sense legislation. Yet Judge Pohl responded, “And I think, as you recognize, you said you can’t legislate common sense or order common sense; all you can do is the best you can with what you’ve got…. And you’ve got to balance [the legitimate need for security] obviously and minimize the intrusion to privileged materials.”

The defense proffered an off-the-cuff proposal for “common sense legislation”: that all documents be stamped properly in accordance with JTF-GTMO SOP and all inspections be performed under the same accord; and that the defendants’ legal bins only be inspected for illegal contraband (i.e. weapons), not for the content of the items contained therein; and if items are seized, the Assistant SJA should refer to defense counsel for reasonable clarification.

Moving forward, the defense has been given 7 days from last Thursday to submit a formal proposal, and the prosecution will be given 7 days to respond, although they have already made it clear that a motion to grant AE 018 would be their position.

In the meantime, the prosecution agreed to have all sixteen “smoke detector” microphones removed from Echo II.

Josh Wirtshafter is a fellow at the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University School of Law student. He is a member of the Class of 2014 and is a 2011 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, where he majored in Religious Studies.