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Danger! Danger! Congressman frets over Obama's use of automated pen

May 27, 2011|By James Oliphant

Regular readers of Politics Now may have noticed that from time to time we can become obsessive, like, for instance, over a certain self-promoting real estate mogul or Newt Gingrich's ABBAesque ringtone. Or, you know, our very real fears that machines are about to take over the planet.

We've warned you about the baseball-tossing robot. And breathed a sigh of relief when a New Jersey congressman defeated a supercomputer.

The White House, at least in the mind of one member of Congress, moved us closer to our inevitable subjugation at the hands (claws? grapplers?) of our soon-to-be mechanical overlords when it determined that it was perfectly legal for President Obama to sign a bill into law while he was half the world away in Europe.

Obama signed the bill passed late Thursday extending key provisions of the Patriot Act using an autopen, a machine that replicates the president's signature. Autopens are used for items like thank-you notes and Christmas cards. No one can seem to recall a president ever using one to sign legislation.

That didn't sit well with Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who is fairly sure the Framers didn't use autopens. He wrote a letter to Obama Friday asking him to cite the legal authority for using an automated pen instead of the real thing.

"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," Graves said in a statement Friday. "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."

For its part, the White House insisted that the automated signing was necessary to avoid any lapse in the Patriot Act's investigative provisions.

"I have requested that President Obama provide a detailed explanation of his authority to delegate this responsibility to a surrogate, whether it is human, machine, or otherwise,” Graves said.

Some conservatives on Twitter took to lumping the humble autopen in with the notorious Teleprompter in a sort of guilt by association, Transformer Division.

"Teleprompter gives speeches, autopen signs bills, what do we really need @BarackObama for?" went one tweet.

But not every Republican is concerned about a robot president. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a lawyer, Friday tweeted a 2005 legal memo from the Bush administration that concluded using an autopen is acceptable. Graves said that the memo's conclusion was "debatable."

Wait a second. Has anyone checked to see if Cornyn has been replaced by an android duplicate? Because, according to CBS News, we're just about on the verge of having human-looking robots walking around.

If you're looking for one disturbing video to watch this Memorial Day weekend, make it this one. Watch your neighbors at the picnic closely. Very closely.

james.oliphant@latimes.com

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