A fountain pen
President Obama was not on hand with a pen to sign the Patriot Act extension, so he approved the use of an autopen. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

President Obama recently signed a bill renewing provisions of the Patriot Act. It went to the White House for approval, though President Obama is currently in Europe. It was revealed that the document was signed into law using an autopen, a pseudo-robotic device that replicates signatures, and this act has proved controversial.

Provisions allowing government surveillance renewed

Recently, certain key provisions of the Patriot Act, were set to expire unless a bill was created, passed by Congress and signed by the president. Three provisions of the domestic security laws that allow for highly controversial surveillance procedures would have expired, according to the Christian Science Monitor, but President Obama signed the bill at the last moment. Despite the stern objections and attempt to rally opposition by Senator Rand Paul, the government is still allowed to use roving wiretaps, pull business records and keep tabs on “lone wolves” of interest without a warrant. However, according to CNN, a brouhaha in Congress has begun because the president used a robotic pen.

Refill the ink if you want to live

Because the president is currently in France, and the signature was needed urgently, the document had to be signed using an autopen. An autopen is a mechanical device that reproduces a person’s signature. It is virtually impossible to tell the difference between a genuine signature and an autosignature. The machines, according to MSNBC, vary in complexity from simply tracing a template to far more mechanically complex machines. There are two companies in the United States that make them, and a brief interview with Bob Olding, owner of one of those companies, is being reproduced on many news sites. Olding, owner of Damillic Corp., told ABC that the autopens his company sells use technology that has barely changed since the 1930s. He also stresses that Damillic goes out of its way to properly vet its customers and make sure that his products are being used ethically.

Nothing illegal about it

The Constitution says the president has to sign a bill; the text reads “he shall sign it.” The Department of Justice says a signature is valid if a it is directed to be attached to a document. The Justice Department originally looked into the use of an autopen for precisely this purpose in 2005 and informed then President Bush that as long as he indicated his consent to the signature, an autosignature was legally valid. Donald Rumsfeld was found to have used an autopen to sign letters of condolences to the families of troops killed in action in 2004, and former Vice President Quayle admitted to using one in 1992. Signature and letter duplication machines were known as polygraphs in the 19th century, and Thomas Jefferson actually built one. Autopens are frequently used by government officials, astronauts and business executives.


Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2011/0527/Patriot-Act-three-controversial-provisions-that-Congress-voted-to-keep

CNN: http://whitehouse.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/27/rise-of-the-machines-autopen-puts-bill-into-law/?hpt=T2

MSNBC: http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/05/27/6731197-the-great-presidential-autopen-hullabaloo

ABC: http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2011/05/robama-is-it-ok-for-a-president-to-autopen-a-bill-into-law.html

Damillic Inc: http://www.realsig.com/index.htm

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