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Promoting Humanitarianism with Murray Sagsveen, AAN General Counsel

By day, Murray Sagsveen is the general counsel for the AAN in St. Paul, MN, committed to legal-medical issues dear to neurologists. Yet outside of the office, Sagsveen steps into a role not entirely at odds with his day job — that of humanitarian advocate for the nonprofit Human Rights First (HRF).


MURRAY SAGSVEEN (second from right) applauds as President Obama signs the executive orders banning the use of torture during interrogation and closing Guantanamo.

Sagsveen is a member of a coalition that includes a human rights organization and fellow retired military officers who successfully advocated for a change in military policies on the use of torture in interrogations and closing the Guantanamo prison. The advocacy culminated in the three executive orders signed by President Obama on Jan. 22 that set a standard for humane treatment, ended secret CIA detentions, and established a date for closing Guantanamo.

Explaining his support and commitment to HRF, Sagsveen said: “As a lawyer and former judge advocate, I firmly believe in the ‘rule of law’ — our country is committed to fundamental rights based on the Constitution, statutes, and treaties. We do not torture or abuse persons in custody because it violates basic human rights, federal law, treaties, and international law — and it is also morally wrong.”

Sagsveen's involvement with HRF follows a distinguished military career. In 1968, Sagsveen entered the US Army, initially serving in Korea and later joining the North Dakota Army National Guard. His many assignments included Staff Judge Advocate for the 164th Engineer Group, Staff Judge Advocate for the State Area Command, Special Assistant to the National Guard Bureau Judge Advocate, and Army National Guard Special Assistant to the Judge Advocate General of the Army.

An old colleague, Army Reserve Brigadier General Jim Cullen, introduced him to humanitarian advocacy, however. “Several years ago, when discussing our respective opinions about the prior administration's policies concerning the treatment of detainees, he invited me to a meeting hosted by Human Rights First in Washington, DC, when our group supported amendments that Sen. McCain was proposing concerning the treatment of detainees.”

Since then Sagsveen has been meeting with “the group” — an informal coalition of mostly retired flag officers (admirals and generals) — to support and accomplish a handful of HRF objectives. “We have not even discussed a name for the group,” he said.

“We have co-signed a number of letters to the Congress concerning specific issues, such as pending legislation or Senate hearings on presidential nominations,” Sagsveen said. Over the years the coalition has addressed seven basic issues: torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees; the Geneva Conventions; military commissions; stripping of Habeas Corpus and judicial review; rendition to torture; secret detention; and private military contractors.

The coalition first met with the presidential candidates in April 2007 in New Hampshire, and then in Iowa in November and December 2007. After the primaries, they attended receptions at the conventions in Denver and St. Paul.

“About 15 of us met with then Sen. Obama, and he was not accompanied by staff,” said Sagsveen. “I personally thought he was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the issues, but asked many questions; was immediately at ease and candid with our group; was serious when discussing the issues, but at times humorous and witty.”

He added: “I also thought that, if he would be elected, our country would be in good hands and that he would quickly change the policies that were troubling our group.”


When he retired from the Army National Guard in 1996, Sagsveen was a brigadier general and senior judge advocate who was planning to return to the full-time practice of law; he had been a partner in a Bismarck, ND, law firm. However, in April 1997, “the North Dakota Adjutant General requested that I assist with the devastating Red River of the North flooding in Grand Forks, ND. He called me at home at 10:15 one evening, requesting that I coordinate law enforcement in the city — the city was evacuated, the downtown was burning, the normally small river was many miles wide in the Red River Valley, and the National Guard had been activated,” Sagsveen remembered.

After two weeks, Sagsveen returned to his firm, but that was short-lasting: The governor temporarily promoted him to major general with the responsibilities as State Flood Recovery Coordinator from June 1997 through January 1998, and then appointed Sagsveen as State Health Officer (the director of the State Department of Health) from 1998 through 2000.

Even at that point, working at the AAN never crossed his mind. That is, not until AAN Executive Director Catherine Rydell approached him when he was changing planes at the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul with a special request: to hire him as the AAN's first general counsel.

“I have known Cathy as a friend, legislator, co-worker, and executive director for about 34 years,” he said, since his days as the North Dakota Medical Association part-time general counsel, when he periodically lobbied two state legislators and chairs of the House Human Services Committee — (then) Rep. Catherine Rydell and Rep. Rod Larson, who is now the AAN chief health policy officer.

Soon after arriving at the AAN, he asked to be the staff liaison to the Ethics, Law, and Humanities Committee.

“This committee, under the leadership of Dr. James Bernat and now Dr. Michael Williams, refined my thinking about human rights in a medical context. I believe health care is a basic human right — it distresses me that millions in this country do not have access to basic health services because they lack health insurance and that many millions around the world do not have basic health care,” he said.

“That is why I work in an international nonprofit association that is committed to improving neurological care. As the AAN general counsel, I have the unique opportunity to work with the editor-in-chief of Neurology, the editors of Neurology Today and Neurology Now, the leadership of the Foundation (which is funding neurological research), the leadership of the AAN and AAN Professional Association, both of which are devoted to improving neurological care worldwide, the leadership of the United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties (which is accrediting subspecialty training programs and certifying neurologists who complete those programs), and on and on. It doesn't get any better than this.”

And Sagsveen's community involvement does not even end there. Sagsveen is the chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association Health Law Section, which supports attorneys in private practice and those working for health care facilities or insurance companies who are committed to improving health care in the state. For several years he was also on the board of directors of a community health clinic, which turned out to be a “challenging experience to provide quality medical care to the uninsured and underserved with limited federal and state funds.” Although no longer in that position, his daughter was recently appointed to the board.

As for President Obama's signing of the executive orders, Sagsveen said he was honored to be part of the advocacy coalition, whose members stood by Obama's side at the moment of the official signing. “Personally, I am comfortable with the process that President Obama has implemented, in the executive orders signed on Jan. 22, to determine whether detainees should be released, handed over to appropriate courts for criminal trials, or further detained,” he said.