About that autopen


As noted here on Boing Boing yesterday, the US has renewed three key provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that were to have expired last night at midnight, granting four more years of overly broad surveillance of Americans. After the Senate and House rushed the extension with only a few lawmakers drawing attention to civil liberties concerns, the bill went before President Obama, to be signed into law.

What makes this news even more depressing? The president, who is on tour in Europe, didn't even sign it in person. According to a White House spokesperson, Obama used a device called an autopen, which mechanically reproduces a human signature.

This was an act so important that it must be signed into law at once to protect us from what Harry Reid suggested could be immediate terrorist acts, but not so important that the president might be inconvenienced during a foreign trip to return to Washington, D.C.

A Reuters item is here. Gawker has a timeline of Great Moments in Autopen History here, and links to this video (animated gif, Flash-ified?) of an autopen device in action. Over at the New York Times, Michael Shear notes that it's unclear whether president Bush ever used an autopen to sign a bill into law.

ABC News examines the constitutionality of using an autopen here, but that isn't enough to comfort conservative Georgia Republican congressman Tom Graves, who sent an email to reporters today:

I thought it was a joke at first, but the President did, in fact, authorize an autopen to sign the Patriot Act extension into law. Consider the dangerous precedent this sets. Any number of circumstances could arise in the future where the public could question whether or not the president authorized the use of an autopen. For example, if the president is hospitalized and not fully alert, can a group of aggressive Cabinet members interpret a wink or a squeeze of the hand as approval of an autopen signing? I am very concerned about what this means for future presidential orders, whether they be signing bills into law, military orders, or executive orders.

I don't know that I agree with Graves' fears (a wink! a squeeze!). But something just seems wrong about automating the process of signing this particular bill into law, given its far-reaching implications for the privacy and liberty of all Americans, and all the secrecy this law entails.

Maybe I'm having a Bill Keller moment: maybe the technology doesn't matter, and the analog ceremony of a human hand and a pen and a piece of paper is just familiar theater. But in this case, could the president have been any more detached?


  1. But in this case, could the president have been any more detached?
    Maybe that’s the point, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with this act either, so he’s physically removed himself from the process, consciously or not.

    1. @GreenJello, I think that’s pretty astute. Not cool, but probably exactly why. The first article I read about this read, ‘Skynet sings Patriot Act Extension’. And that’s about the size of it – completely divorced of human influence or the impact.

  2. It really is the height of irony isn’t it? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disgusted to my core.

  3. Your feathers are being ruffled by the President’s seeming mental detachment from the process, as evidenced by his use of an autopen. Were he to jump on a secret as-yet-decommissioned SR-71 and jet back to DC to sign it in person within a couple of hours, I don’t think your concern would be significantly assuaged. In fact, it may have taken more time to set up and program the autopen than it would have taken the President to return to the US via the fastest available method of transport. (Yes, this is all just a thought experiment; I realize the President doesn’t normally travel on a high-speed spy plane.)

    1. Presidents set up autopens at the beginning of their term (or rather, White House staff do) so they don’t have to spends days and days signing Christmas cards, photos, etc. Any set-up needed for the autopen was done years ago.

  4. It also seems oddly appropriate that a marginally constitutional bill was signed in a marginally constitutional way.

  5. The alternative would be two intercontinental flights to sign the papers and return to his duties in Europe. Yes, that is absolutely time well spent.

    If you don’t like the PATRIOT Act, complain about the act. Complaining about the autopen is like saying they didn’t put enough mayo on your sh*t sandwich.

    1. The President could’ve had the papers sent to him or just printed out a copy whereever he was.

  6. I’m somewhat incredulous that a congressman would be surprised at the use/existence of an Autopen, as they’re used quite extensively in the Senate and House.

  7. “But in this case, could the president have been any more detached?”

    Sure. He could have done absolutely nothing, and in 10 days it would automatically become law.


  8. What some suspected has now been demonstrated: the Patriot Act is harder to kill than Bin Laden.

  9. Would it be any worse if he signed it and faxed it back? No. Though thanks for introducing me to a new technology ;)

  10. In what way would we be better off if the President took two transcontinental flights in order to put ink on a piece of paper?

    I don’t like it when my bank wants me to come in in person and sign something instead of sending an email or fax. This seems much the same. The important thing is his consent, not his handwriting.

    And the wink and squeeze stuff is just stupid. If the president’s in a coma or something, then the vice president is in charge.

  11. I thought the law was such that if the president was incapacitated (or dead), that the vice president would fill his place until a proper president could be elected. LBJ was the president for quite some time before he was officially elected. I’m not sure how it works if the president is simply incapacitated, if they are allowed to sign in any laws, but I imagine they would be. When somebody goes into a coma, we often don’t know how long it will take for them to wake, if they ever do.

    1. Presidential Succession Act… why a congresscritter doesn’t know this concerns me more.

  12. You forgot the words “of hypocrisy” after the word “act”.

    Remember that guy we used call Barack Obama? The hopey, changey guy who said the Patriot Act was unnecessary and wrong? I wonder what we can do to get that guy in office.

  13. I don’t know that the august representative from the great state of Georgia actually cares or even knows much about autopens; it was just his turn to find something bad to say about the President, and this was all he had. It’ll be someone else’s turn tomorrow.

    Rep. Graves was really enthusiastic at first because he thought this was about the President using an autopenis.

    1. Picture a reciprocating saw with a dildo attachment. Now picture Obama using such an instrument on the country.

      1. Picture a reciprocating saw with a dildo attachment. Now picture Obama using such an instrument on the country.

        It’s called a Fuckzall, buddy. Did you just fall off a turnip truck from Pleasantville?

      2. Picture a reciprocating saw with a dildo attachment. Now picture Obama using such an instrument on the country.

        At least it reciprocates.

  14. I’m missing the controversy here. The autopen is a way for a President to sign something while not being present. Since the signature was necessary before midnight last, he used a machine. None of this speaks to how much Obama did or didn’t think about the act, its consequences, etc. If anything, his refusal to hand-wring over this particular bit of machine-automated signing suggests he is indeed serious: worrying about Orwellian coincidences isn’t part of his Constitutional mandate, while conducting diplomacy is.

    And I’m sure he’s well aware of the precise calculus that’s been done on how much farther he can go before losing LibProg votes, and I bet he thinks he can go a lot farther: as do I. And I’ll go on thinking that until someone (probably not a Boinger, certainly not me) advances a credible primary opponent to the Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden.

  15. Where’s the problem? American soldiers use remote controlled drones to patrol and (I think) to kill, so it’s fitting that their boss uses a remote controlled pen to fulfil his (pariotic) duty?

    However, why didn’t they simply send the bill by courier, have him sign it on Air Force One and return it by courier?

  16. Wait, didn’t something like this almost happen to John Ashcroft?

    Some guys getting caught trying to get him to sign something while being medicated in a hospital bed.

    If only he had an Autopen!

  17. If the President were incapacitated as described, wouldn’t it actually fall on the Vice President to sign the bill or authorize an auto pen signature.

  18. Two trans-atlantic flights on Air Force One would have cost a tremendous amount of money, and given ammo to both the left and right to complain about him. That would have been incredibly stupid and wasteful.

    And kibbee, if the president dies, the VP becomes President. He doesn’t fill his place, he is the president and remains so for the remainder of the term. If that period is more than two years it counts as a full term with regards to term limits. If the president is incapacitated the VP assumes the responsibilities as mandated by the constitution. If the president is going in for surgery this is handled beforehand.


    It’s well spelled out.

  19. The Congressman’s fears are based on the fall-out of the near assassination of Reagan in 1981.

    Congress had just passed a bill suspending some payments to dairy farmers, and he had almost run out of time to sign the bill, 10 days under the Constitution. [Google ‘pocket veto’ for a more detailed explanation].

    Reagan was in surgery, and it was touch and go for a while. His aides seriously considered having the bill autopen signed, based on some sort of signal from Reagan, who was on fentanyl and a respirator at the time. See “Rawhide Down”, book on the assassination attempt by Del Wilbur.

    Reagan wanted the bill signed… now flip that to an instance where a President doesn’t want a bill signed. President Trump is incapacitated following a sudden bout of hair-itis, and vice president [whoever finished second on The Apprentice] is on his way back to Washington.

    What’s to keep an aide who disagreed with the President from saying “yeah, he said use the autopen” while President Trump is under anesthesia?

    Given, it’s a rare circumstance, but it is possible. Hence his concern.

  20. In addition to all the practical concerns already mentioned, if I were Obama I wouldn’t want to have photographs taken of me signing this bill for future generations to see. I’m sure that he can sign bills in privacy, but I wouldn’t want to take any chances.

    Now, the evidence does seem to point to the fact that Obama probably doesn’t actually oppose this like we wish he would, but it’s a nice thought anyway.

  21. ooooh ooooh Political Theatre! How engrossing!

    or just gross: I kinda wonder why the GOP hates Obama so much; he’s done a pretty good job continuing the policies of the previous administration…

    oh well: new boss, same as the old boss.

  22. What I don’t get is that I’ve worked with autopens in the past (a family member was elected to Federal office) and they don’t exactly work like this. The whole point of the autopen is that the $MUCKETYMUCK doesn’t have to do any signing. It’s not like a telesurgery device or something. Rather, it was (at least back when I dealt with it) a large-ish wheel inside the desk that has a carved undulating path on it’s surface. The wheel spins, and a probe follows the path, mimicking the signature. Put a piece of paper on the desk, screw a pen into the holder, and you can have a low-level staffer signing away. Automation versus distance.

  23. The whole concept of having to sign things is so antiquated to me. For example the only thing keeping fax machines alive is the need for people to fax copies of there signature.

    I mean how silly is it that you can use a machine to recreate the signature. Why not just a damn voice recording.

    1. I agree. They should set up a way for the president to digitally sign bills or executive orders for situations like this.

    2. The whole concept of having to sign things is so antiquated to me.

      I think it keeps a certain bit of tradition, and it seems it would make a President just a bit more aware by signing his John Hancock to a law rather than clicking a button. It’s a bit harder to forge a signature than hack the autopen. I do also agree with the Senator, considering the John Ashcroft scenario of cabinet members trying to coerce him while drugged up. But perhaps it doesn’t make a difference.

      For some reason, by contrast I’m a huge advocate of internet-based public voting.

    3. The whole concept of having to sign things is so antiquated to me.

      It’s like a handshake. It’s a symbolic endorsement and physical merging of the article and the persons involved. Signing it by hand is a form of oath-taking.

  24. It’s certainly interesting to see how modern technology and millennia-old traditions intersect. Specifically, it’s astonishing to see how much importance is placed on a signature, the easiest thing in the world to forge, even in this day and age. For example, here in Europe it’s quite common to be asked to sign a credit card receipt instead of using a PIN, especially at bars and restaurants, even when dealing with $100+. It’s mind-boggling that signatures are still deemed good enough when safer verification methods abound.

    On the other hand, I also assume that it is highly unlikely that anyone else can sign a bill into law without the President’s consent and remain undiscovered. So why jump through the autopen hoop? Why can he not do so verbally and have a clerk put his opinion on paper? Especially since it’s quite common for the Congress to vote using voice votes.

    Still, this is the least scandalous aspect of the whole sordid affair. I assume that he could not have acted otherwise. The choice would have otherwise been between being attacked for not caring enough about the nation’s security to sign the bill immediately, or being attacked for wasting tax-payer money on trans-Atlantic flights/couriers in this time of deficits. Don’t get worked up by the autopen, vote for better representatives instead.

  25. I suppose a fax or email of the bill printed out for an actual signature would have been too much to ask in this day and age?

    Who, pray tell, is so concerned about affixing a particular signature to a particular bunch of unConstitutionalily as to use a mechanical pseudo-siganture?

    I grieve for a former republic.

  26. I used to use one of these at the university I worked for, to sign the president’s signature to letters to donors.

    The entire surface you see there opens up to reveal a large C-shaped disc, a few feet in diameter. The discs have a wavy pattern on the inner and outer edges, and a raised ridge in the middle.

    When you use the machine, it rotates the C-shape under the area where the pen is. Two arms translate the amplitude of the waves on each edge of the disc into X-Y pen movement, and the center ridge controls when the pen is raised and lowered.

  27. It’s petty for the Republicans to be making the autopen an issue. If the Republicans finally want to start a fight with Obama about something, perhaps they could try the $14 trillion in deficits, or the raiding of the pension funds to avoid the debt ceiling, or the three wars, or the open southern border, or the economy currently in shambles here or the foreign policy disasters or the fact that Obama caused the Democrats to lose 800+ seats last November.

    But I won’t be holding my breath for this because no one has heard from the Republicans in any substantial way since they took the House.

  28. This latest GOP whinefest highlights everything wrong with the party. The old farts in the GOP are more concerned with following procedure than actually addressing the fact that the Patriot Act does away with due process which is a major check of the judicial branch. I’m glad the President used an auto-pen to show how little he cares about the bill, because having the bill sunset was probably out of the question.

      1. I was referring to the President himself, not his administration. Lets face it. When you’re at the top you have to let your administration do things that are pretty repulsive to your own personal values. Am I projecting? No, I’m speculating. Get the two straight. OK?

        1. does projecting equal speculating.
          maybe, maybe not.

          but you’re most likely assuming Obama believes the same way you do.

          “When you’re at the top you have to let your administration do things that are pretty repulsive to your own personal values.”

          I disagree, especially if you at the top. you get to call the shots not those under you.

  29. Is it a surprise to anyone that the guy who voted present, the guy who said he disagreed with a right to own hand guns and then had a “wait that wasn’t me who filled out that paper, it was an assistant” moment would also refuse to put his hand to the signature of something he and his political allies (and opponents) rallied against in the campaign?

  30. i’m with Tdawwg (#12) here. i don’t see any problem with this — on the contrary, i find it fascinating. what i DO find distressing is all the people bending over backwards and trying to use this as another excuse to dogpile on the president.

  31. The objection to the use of the autopen is ridiculous, and proof that conservatives are insane.

    Signing this bill proves that Obama is NOT a terrorists loving, socialist Kenyan who hates America. It proves he’s a center right conservative. . . who hates America.

    But conservatives have to attack him for something. They approve of the bill, so they have to attack. . . the method of signing it.

    Tom Graves is insane.

  32. I’m not a fan of the Patriot Act, but my understanding is, its basically impossible to instantly turn off all of the NSA’s surveillance methods. It’s not like flipping a light switch. Thus, if it wasn’t signed immediately (ie, before midnight), there would be a period where the NSA was illegally collecting information. This would have created quite the legal headache. To avoid this, they used the autopen.

    To reiterate, I am no fan of the Patriot Act, but I understand why those that support it pressed for a method that allowed the bill to be signed before midnight. They did it to avoid causing the NSA to break the law.

  33. Having read more about the autopen, I must admit I had made incorrect assumptions about its operation. I thought that it was basically a remote control for a pen — e.g. the operator uses a digital stylus and this sends control messages over a network to a motorized pen on the other end of the connection. But in fact, it just robotically reproduces a pre-defined signature. This seems somehow less legitimate to me. The system I described would at least capture the spirit of the person signing a document in real-time, but this autopen machine is no better than a rubber stamp.

  34. I think the sense of unease that Ms. Jardin is highlighting is not primarily technological, but political. The technology in this case is highlighted because of the deadline constraint: if the bill is not passed immediately, bad things happen. So to prevent bad things, we use technology to speed the process and sign the bill into law.

    But I think it is the artificiality of the deadline and the plaintive keening of Congress that is the most unsettling. The deadline was no surprise. The bill could have been written and signed days ago. Weeks ago. Months ago. Years ago.

    But the bill stinks. So they waited until the last possible moment as an excuse to evade public debate.

    They wailed like children who played games until bed and then plead exhaustion when faced with unfinished homework.

    It’s not the physical presence of the president’s hand that we miss, it’s the semblance of representation we miss from our representatives.

    1. Don’t be cynical. The corporations that control our elected representatives have the courage of their beliefs: they value profits above all else, and have the organizational resources to ensure greater and greater profits. They do not opine on their right to be represented: they organize and buy what they need. There’s nothing preventing the people of the United States from doing the same, and from meeting the corporations and their paid minions in open political combat on the electoral battlefield: nothing, that is, save for a tiresome sentimentality about what government “should” do. If you want to be represented, do what the powerless have always done: fight.

  35. Autopen would most likely not be acceptable for signing a will (perhaps in some truly exceptional circumstance) but good for turning bills into laws?

    The act of signing may seem archaic but serves a basic purpose. If someone uses an autopen to sign a bill without the president’s authorization…is that bill law or not? If a president authorizes use of an autopen but then changes his mind, was that autopen signature legitimate or not? How about he just calls up Biden and tells him to sign it with Obama’s name?

    Either a machine signature is legitimate on its own or it is not. Obama’s own signature will always be legitimate on its own. He can’t change his mind or argue that the pen signed it. At best, autopen is an authorized forgery. There is no legal precedent on this matter which makes the Bush legal opinion reasonable. But that doesn’t make it good.

    For many of you, the form of the signature is the least of your concerns. And nobody is doubting that Obama authorized this bill to be signed with his name. It is a matter of precedent and integrity of our government. “Signing” shouldn’t be reduced to “authorization of signing.” If Obama had to actually sign the bill, so that it becomes law immediately, he should have to come back or have the bill brought to him (or why not fax it to him and have him actually sign the fax, if we don’t really care about the authenticity of the words – I hope this absurd idea highlights the error of the autopen). Otherwise, yes, let the law lapse if it isn’t that important.

  36. The way I see it is the President did not sign the bill. A machine made a mark on the bill. I don’t see that as a valid “signature.” Just as watching your swearing-in ceremony on TV while holding up your right hand does not count either. There are some things you really, actually need to show up for in person. Bad, bad precedent if it’s legally held up as valid.

  37. “I don’t know that I agree with Graves’ fears (a wink! a squeeze!).”

    Given that we already have a disturbing precedent in this country, in the form of President Wilson’s incapacitation, and a legislative response, in the form of the 25th Amendment, I’m not sure the snark is warranted. Al Haig is probably twirling in his grave as we type.

  38. Welcome back to 1989. That’s the summer that I spent rooming with a guy who worked in a Florida senator’s office. He had access to the autopen for the Senator, even as a college-age intern. I clearly recall the document he made for fun: “This is your senator. (signed normally) This is your senator on drugs. (signed while he moved the paper on the machine, so it came out drunkenly skewed)”

    Next you’re all going to tell me that you believe the banks when they tell you there’s something magical about your own signature on your credit card receipts.

  39. Amazing – I think it took 52 comments to get to the first thing that popped into my head regarding this: Rubber Stamp.

  40. An autopen president works fine. Who listens to Obama anyway? Gitmo is still open, the bankers are laughing and it was probably the autopen that OK’d the bin Laden assassination.

  41. The removal of the human in a process which directly effects humans is a beginning to and end. I could not believe this when I read it. There are many comments here which are dead on, congressional abuse, false executive actions, the list is endless. I wish I had one of these to hack myself some reference letters from Steve Jobs.

    What would Harry Truman have done? Anyone who does not find this an apoplectic horror in the use of anthromorphology is inane. Where is the executive order that says the machine can sign for him? Did he actually sign that one either?

    If he needs to use America’s nukes, will the hand that pushes the button be his, or a machine by proxy? Who needs an executive to BE the executive? We DO. Patronize Poland another day. Do you thick think that they want to hear more about what the Nazi’s did to them, or the Soviets? They want to be a part of the EU, not wallow in the past.

    Stay Home, do your damn job, and help me please remember why I would vote for a proxy? I forget, and I will next year too.

  42. Have we no fax machines? Email? The pres can sign documents outside the White House.

  43. I have to wonder why the President left the country, necessitating the use of the Autopen, when everybody knew the PATRIOT authorities were expiring. I mean, if it hadn’t passed, wouldn’t it have been a good idea for him to be nearby in case there was an instantaneous terrorist attack? The risk couldn’t have been that great, one way or another.

  44. The very existence of something like the autopen demonstrates just how important dog-and-pony shows are to Americans. Does a signature from the puppet of the oligarchs really mean anything? The fact that it’s mechanized is depressing to be sure, but at this stage really, who gives a damn anymore?

    Did anyone really drink enough faerie kool-aid to believe that the Patriot Act wouldn’t be renewed under any Prezident?

  45. Actually, I think the reasoning in the Attorney General’s Office opinion is quite convincing. The notion of signing by proxy has quite a long history in the common law and it’s the actual *assent* to affixing the signature that’s important, not whether he signs it himself.

  46. Why didn’t he just sign it before he left? He knew when the Patriot Act was going to expire. Truly, Obama is a nOOb.

  47. I am surprised that no one looked at the fact that the autopen has not yet been challenged in a constitutional court yet. The Bush administration was the first to contend that it is acceptable under the constitution, but did not put it to the test.

    Now that would be interesting if it were to happen: the act extension is thrown out because the signature is ruled invalid, and a Bush legal opinion is also axed in the process.

  48. Terrorism is the use of violence or threat of violence to control people whereas Government is the use of violence or threat of violence to control people.

  49. The most disturbing part of it to me is that he was pretty much saying “Whatever you guys come up with is ok with me…”

  50. President Obama could have just had the bill brought to him by courier. If immediately promulgation was required (hard to see why), the necessary officials could have been brought to the August Presence, since (I think) nothing in the law or the constituion keeps promulgation from being done from outside the US.

    The reason to have the President sign the actual bill passed by Congress is becuase it is the text of the original bill that is binding law. Otherwise somebody has to check the text of whatever copy the President signs against the original, before he signs it. Can you imagine “oops, decimal point misplaced: University of North Dakota gets $100,000,000,000 for their new chicken farm”?

    But why the ararngements worked for FDR aren’t good enough for His O-ness? I wish I didn’t know…

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