There are preapproved form letters with digital signatures. There are preprinted cards for birthdays and other special events. Autopen signatures generally are reserved for more personalized correspondence that doesn't score a real signature, say officials from administrations past.
Obama's staff is loath to talk about his use of the autopen.
The president prefers to keep the focus on the sampling of 10 letters a day that he reads from among the tens of thousands that ordinary people send to the White House. In many cases, he writes back to these people, with his own signature.
But the president couldn't get around explaining how the Patriot Act got signed into law without briefly shining a spotlight on the autopen. Once that news was out, though, the White House clammed up. It declined to provide any further details about how many autopens the administration uses, what they look like, where they're kept, or who makes the machine.
And don't ask Bob Olding, whose company is the leading manufacturer of autopens, to discuss his clientele.
"I'm not going to help you," he said. "Our customers do not want anyone else knowing they have these machines."
Olding did reveal, though, that "when there's a major change in government, we get an uptick in business."
Olding is president of Rockville, Md.-based Damilic Corp., whose signature machines run from $2,000 up to $10,000. Hulking older versions look like a drafting table and are too big to fit through a doorway. Newer models, with microprocessors and digital controls, sit on a tabletop. But they still feature two mechanical arms that move a pen back and forth, up and down.
The machines sign letters at about the same pace as does the human hand. An autopen machine that automatically signs a stack of documents can spit out roughly 500 signatures an hour; those with manual document feeders, about 200 an hour.
As recently as the second Bush administration, the autopen in use was a large piece of furniture that looked like a drafting table, says Heidi Smith, who served as Bush's correspondence director for two years. She says those with clearance to use the autopen would head over to the executive clerk's office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, where the autopen wielded Bush's pen of choice — a Sharpie.
Autopens have been used by presidents since Dwight Eisenhower, says Koschal, and President John F. Kennedy put them to heavy use. Many presidents have had secretaries sign their names to correspondence and documents, he says.
More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson acquired a mechanical copying device called a polygraph that attached to his pen and made a second copy of what he was writing. Jefferson liked it so much he wrote that "I could not, now therefore, live without the Polygraph."
It's not just busy presidents who rely on autopens. They're used by thousands of organizations, companies and government officials.
Donald H. Rumsfeld got in hot water for using one as defense secretary to sign letters of condolence to the families of U.S. troops killed in action. When word leaked out in 2004, Rumsfeld said he'd done it to "ensure expeditious contact with grieving family members."
"I have directed that in the future I sign each letter," he said.
Other officials and candidates have fingered the autopen as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for documents that appeared to bear their names. One was Enron executive Kenneth Lay, who was convicted of fraud, conspiracy and lying to banks despite his lawyers' arguments that he shouldn't be held accountable for documents signed by autopen. His conviction was later vacated on other grounds.
So how to tell the difference between a real signature and an autopen version?
Koschal says the best way to detect a fake is to lay the signature in question over a known autopen version and hold the two documents up to a light. If they're exactly the same, chances are that the top one was created with an autopen. But presidents often create multiple autopen signatures to make it less obvious when they're letting a machine do the work.
As for Obama's autopen signature on the extension of Patriot Act powers, it may pass the constitutional test, but not Koschal's.
"I'd pay peanuts for it," the autograph authenticator said. "It's not a real signature."
Benac can be followed at http://twitter.com/nbenac
Damilic Corp.: http://www.damilic.com/autopen
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