When Murray Sagsveen’s friend asked him to attend a meeting in 2005, the Bismarck attorney likely never imagined the meeting would put him on a path to Guantanamo Bay.
In September, Sagsveen had an opportunity few people will ever have — he watched closed-to-the-public court proceedings of a military commission for alleged terrorists at the military prison located within Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
Sagsveen, a lawyer for 40 years, has worked in private practice, state government and for several medical groups. But it’s his military background — he retired in 1996 as a brigadier general and the senior judge advocate in the Army National Guard — that got him into that 2005 meeting about the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
A friend Sagsveen knew from his 28-year military career invited him to attend the meeting in November 2005. Since then, Sagsveen’s name has appeared along with an impressive group of retired generals and admirals who support initiatives of the human rights group “Human Rights First” concerning the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other locations on letters to government officials.
In the letters, the officials support the closure of Guantanamo Bay, disapprove of the use of torture in interrogations and advocate for terrorism suspects to be tried
in federal court rather than by military commission, among other things.
The chairs of the group are retired Marines: Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, former Commander in Chief of United States Central Command, and Gen. Charles C. Krulak, the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps.
“They’re not bleeding-heart liberals,” Sagsveen said of the members of the group. He described himself as one of the most “junior” members.
What they are, he explained, are former military leaders who are “very concerned” about human rights.
Human Rights First coordinates the letters, which are sent out for consideration to the members. The members can choose to sign or not sign, and they usually have less than a day to add their names.
The group met with numerous 2008 presidential candidates, including the eventual victors, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Obama invited them to attend his signing of an executive order closing Guantanamo Bay shortly after his inauguration in 2009. They met with the president privately, even without Secret Service officers, and later watched as he signed the order.
“We were very optimistic about it,” Sagsveen said.
Of course, the planned-for closing never happened. Opponents of the idea “pushed back,” and the controversial prison remains open.
“It’s kind of history right now,” Sagsveen said of the order.
Human Rights First is one of several human rights organizations authorized to act as “observers” at the military commissions in Guantanamo Bay. Sagsveen said they take volunteers to go to Cuba and watch the proceedings.
Sagsveen traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Sept. 14 and spent a week observing pretrial proceedings of the military commission trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and others at Guantanamo Bay for masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Sagsveen flew to Washington, D.C., where he got on a charter plane at Andrews Air Force Base. Also taking the flight were other observers, members of the media, the judge and judicial staff, prosecutors and defense counsel. Each group was brought onto the plane separately to keep the groups from mingling.
Sagsveen stayed in a tent — a “good tent” with a wood floor — right next to the courtroom complex. He dined in local restaurants, including one in which a giant iguana walked through.
But the court experience may have been even stranger than the iguana. Everyone had to go through TSA-like security machines, then were wanded separately.
Once inside, the observers were separated from the courtroom by soundproof glass, and a television monitor and audio from the courtroom were on a 40-second delay. The purpose for the delay, Sagsveen explained, is so a court security officer can turn off the sound if classified information is discussed. There were two military police officers per defendant, and the female defense attorneys wore head coverings.
The week Sagsveen was there, attorneys were arguing one of at least 45 pretrial motions filed by the defense. That motion dealt with issues regarding difficulties defense counsel had in corresponding with each other and with their clients. The Department of Defense had allowed the attorneys to store files on its network, but they were concerned some of the information seemed to be ending up with prosecutors. They also were concerned about third-party monitoring of their conversations with clients.
Sagsveen said another member of the Human Rights First group, a former interrogator, has been an observer on motions regarding the use of torture to obtain confessions and other information.
Sagsveen is working on a report to Human Rights First and the rest of the retired military members involved in the group explaining what he saw. He also is digging into the history of military commissions, Guantanamo Bay and the handling of terror suspects to inform his report.
Sagsveen also plans to use the knowledge he gained on his trip when he speaks to the North Dakota congressional delegation this month. He, along with others associated with Human Rights First, lobby senators and representatives for support in shutting down Guantanamo and moving such trials to the country’s federal courts.
The National Defense Authorization Act has gotten out of committee with a provision that would authorize the president to bring Guantanamo prisoners to the United States for medical care, detention and trial and to clarify the president’s ability to release prisoners to a foreign country. Sagsveen will try to convince North Dakota’s delegation to work to keep the provision in the bill.
There are numerous reasons Sagsveen and the others believe the terror suspects should be tried in federal courts. One reason is cost; the cost of holding and trying the suspects in Guantanamo Bay far exceed those of trying people in federal court. But a more important reason has to do with the American way.
“It has to do with the integrity of the system,” Sagsveen said.
He said the military commission allows hearsay and coerced evidence; some evidence came through waterboarding or other techniques to which many people object. Some suspects have been detained indefinitely without charge or trial. And much of the process is out of the public eye.
The U.S. federal court system has held hundreds more trials for terror suspects than have military commissions. The federal system is more established, with its avenue of appeals, and convictions reached in federal court have been less likely to be overturned than those in military commissions, he said.
“I’m just concerned about inventing a system or establishing a system to use less restrictive rules to make sure you get a conviction,” Sagsveen said.
Sagsveen has heard many people say that the alleged terrorists don’t deserve to be in the federal courts, that they are so likely guilty that they shouldn’t be afforded the rights given to American citizens. But, he worries that the United States will have little standing internationally to protest if its own citizens are tortured or tried in judicial systems that allow hearsay or coerced evidence in the future.
“We can’t criticize anyone else if we don’t do it properly at home,” Sagsveen said. “And that’s why I’m involved in this whole business.”