Obama draws query by signing Patriot Act extension with auto-pen

May 27, 2011

What’s a president to do when Congress passes a bill just hours before key anti-terrorism surveillance measures are about to expire and he’s 4,000 miles away?  Auto-pen of course.

For the uninitiated, lawmakers and yes, even the president of the United States, have a  machine that has a real pen which goes over a copy of the person’s actual signature. It is typically used for signing proforma letters or souvenir pictures to send constituents or fans.

Well, President Barack Obama has been in Europe for the annual G-8 summit and Congress was racing to pass legislation extending the authorization of key surveillance methods used to try to thwart attacks on the United States, which were due to expire Thursday night at midnight. Congress came through just hours before midnight but Obama was in France.

The White House released a statement just before midnight saying that the legislation had been signed and a White House aide told Reuters that the auto-pen was used to do so at Obama’s direction.

That prompted at least one lawmaker, Georgia Republican Representative Tom Graves, to question whether that was legal or not, writing Obama a letter seeking clarification.

“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,” Graves said in a statement.

Well, for those who may question the use of the auto-pen, there is a legal opinion issued during the Bush administration that gave the green-light to using it.

“We conclude that the President need not personally perform the physical act of affixing his signature to a bill to sign it within the meaning of Article I, Section 7″ of the U.S. Constitution, the 29-page opinion said.

“We emphasize that we are not suggesting that the President may delegate the decision to approve and sign a bill, only that, having made this decision, he may direct a subordinate to affix the President’s signature to the bill,” it said.

The law signed late Thursday is not without controversy.  Passed right after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, it authorizes law enforcement authorities to get court approval to obtain “roving wiretaps” on suspected foreign agents with multiple modes of communications, track non-American “lone wolves” suspected of terrorism, and obtain certain business records and even library records.

Many Democrats and some Republicans have expressed concerns about the surveillance, worried that they are prone to abuse and may infringe on civil liberties. The new law extends the authority for the surveillance methods for four years, to June 2015.

We’ll see if anyone decides to file a lawsuit challenging the legal opinion and, or, Obama’s signature. (A quick query to the American Civil Liberties Union came back saying that they had no plans to go to court.)

Photo credit: Molly Riley (Obama’s first official signature as president in 2009); Kevin Lamarque (Obama and French President Nicholas Sarkozy at the G-8 meeting);


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