The Pitfall of the Auto-Pen

The initial report was shocking.

A reporter writing for a major Israeli newspaper claimed that when radical anti-Israel groups were looking for support for their illegal Gaza flotilla in 2010 — the attempt to break the blockade that ended in violent clashes aboard the Mavi Marmara — they found it in none other than then-Sen. John Kerry, who was at the time chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.

The paper claimed that Kerry issued a letter on his official U.S. Senate stationery expressing his “strong support” for the “humanitarian” delegation and asking that “every courtesy” be extended to them. The reporter noted that Kerry should have known better. “How is it that a senior senator gave legitimacy to a group that was characterized by support for Hamas, support for Ahmadinejad, and deep hostility toward Israel and the United States?”

A closer look told a somewhat different story.

The actual letter, published along with the article, mentions no names of groups or individuals, just a general letter of introduction to some unnamed constituents. There is no indication that Kerry knew what these hoodlums were really about or that they were planning to eventually join the anti-Israel flotilla.

When contacted by the JTA, a State Department official insisted that Kerry never even signed it. It was a form letter that was “auto-penned,” a standard letter of introduction for constituents that members of Congress send out on a regular basis.

“Sen. Kerry never saw it, nor did senior staff see it. It was put together by his Boston office and would also not have involved senior staff members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” the State Department official insisted.

“Moreover, the text of the letter has nothing to do with the flotilla incident or even Gaza.

“It focuses purely on a humanitarian mission in Israel and the Palestinian territories in support of the peace process. Kerry’s staff would have provided the letter so that Massachusetts residents could receive meetings while they were in Israel and the Palestinian territories. That is all. And if it was used for anything else it was under false pretenses,” the official added.

If this is indeed what transpired, then Kerry can hardly be accused of willingly supporting anti-Israel groups. But this does lead to another question: Why do members of Congress and other elected officials regularly allow their staff to sign their names via auto-pen and distribute letters of introduction to people they have never met?

In this case it is unclear whether the letter actually did any damage. Egyptian officials were unimpressed by Kerry’s signature and detained the group, preventing them from entering Gaza. Furthermore, there is no indication that any members of the group who obtained the letter actually joined the flotilla.

But the very concept of auto-penned letters paves the way for rampant misuse.

One can readily understand why the auto-pen is a tempting gadget for public officials. Pre-printed signatures may be impressive looking at first glance, but one can usually tell they were not hand signed. But the auto-pen — some models of which can sign a person’s name up to 400 times an hour — uses a real pen to perfectly mimic a real signature.

This device has been around for decades.  President Harry Truman is said to have already made use of this tool as well, and President John F. Kennedy reportedly used it for any signature that wasn’t of major significance.

In 2004, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was heavily criticized for using an auto-pen to sign condolence letters to families of American soldiers killed in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It made headlines again in May of 2011, when President Barack Obama became the first president to use it to sign a bill into law. Obama was in France attending a G8 summit, and the Patriot Act was about to expire. Instead of waiting for the bill passed by Congress to be delivered by courier, Obama ordered that his staff back in Washington use the auto-pen. The president subsequently used it on two more occasions for this purpose: in November of 2011 during a visit to Indonesia, and last January when he was vacationing in Hawaii.

While some questioned the legal validity of such a move, it was clear that Obama had directly instructed that it be used and was fully aware what the bills were about.

The same can’t be said for former Vice President Dan Quayle. When asked about a letter bearing his name sent to a judge, asking that a fund-raiser convicted for racketeering be moved to a cushier prison, Quayle said that a staffer must have signed it with an auto-pen without his knowledge.

One can only wonder how many such cases go unreported, and how many such letters are used under false pretenses.

Members of Congress and other elected officials bear a responsibility to the public to ensure that their signatures are not misused. If this will mean less use of an auto-pen and more use of underlings signing their own names “on behalf of” an official, so be it.