Washington’s signature-writing machines rumble into the digital age

Way back during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, even before there were ballpoint pens, the federal government embraced a radical new technology — a device that reproduced the signatures of time-starved senior leaders and presidents.

The autopen would became a perk of power, proof that the signer’s name could greenlight projects, disburse federal money, even launch a Navy ship or two. It was the killer app of 1937.

But what once was evidence of government’s willingness to leap into the future has become a sign of its addiction to old ways of doing business, especially when symbols of command and authority are at stake.

No one likes to talk about it, but the device long ago dubbed the ‘Robot Pen’ is still rumbling in executive offices in Washington and other outposts of federal power. Generals and admirals use them. Cabinet secretaries can’t quite forsake them. Even President Obama — he of the presidential BlackBerry and massive Twitter following — has signed three laws with his.

Daniel M. Tangherlini, who as head of the General Services Administration has sought to modernize the government, couldn’t bring himself to part with all three of the autopens his predecessor left behind. He dumped two but keeps one around for what he calls ceremonial emergencies, even as he labels its staying power “an allegory for unreformed business practices.”

“When you have critical business processes that rely on technology that was modern in 1937, you have to ask yourself — are you really embracing the digital age?”

There are thousands of autopens, the size of large printers, tucked away in back offices across the government, from the Social Security Administration to the Air Force and in most Cabinet agencies. They look a bit like printers with a mechanical arm that accordions out, grasping an upright pen above a flat writing surface. With a rumble, a motor powers the arm, in turn manipulating the pen, applying ink to paper in the pattern of the programmed signature.

At times, the pen answers the call of protocol, standing in for busy military commanders. In a pinch, it signs for civilian leaders who are out of town. But far more often, it completes routine paperwork that could be done digitally: performance reviews of federal employees, checks to vendors for small jobs, meeting invitations from regulators to the businesses they oversee.

Its endurance may reflect the tendency in government to rely on important people to make things happen — on paper. It can be habit-forming.

“Once they find their way into a federal office,” said Bob Olding, president of Rockville-based DAMILIC, one of the country’s two autopen manufacturers, “the pens become very convenient.”

They’re also helpful at cementing status. “Some of the most important and influential people in government use these machines,” Olding said. “They’ll pack up and move onto another department and say, ‘Where’s my autopen?’ ”

There’s a cost to operating the machines. They must routinely be serviced. Autopenned documents have to be scanned into e-mail, faxed or sent by inter-office mail or post.

“It does stand out as a funny leftover in the large scheme of things,” said Elaine Kamarck, who helped run Vice President Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government” initiative in the 1990s and is now at the Brookings Institution.

At the Navy’s Welfare and Recreation Department in Millington, Tenn., the pen signs some checks to vendors who sell fitness equipment for sailors at sea, and some employees stationed abroad. The checks are sent by mail, not electronic deposit.

The National Transportation Safety Board uses the pen to sign subpoenas in accident investigations if the chairman can’t. They would put digital signatures on correspondence if they could, officials say. But few offices, including the Office of Management and Budget, accept them.

“I find there are some folks who are just very resistant to change to get something that is not physically signed,” said Paula Sind-Prunier, the board’s chief of safety recommendations and quality assurance.

Robert DeShazo Jr., who founded Sterling-based Automated Signature Technology, took the first autopen order from the secretary of the Navy. They haven’t changed much since then. They’re still noisy and clunky, although today’s signatures are stored in smart cards, not giant plastic matrixes with channels cut into an engraved plate.

Autopens users are secretive, apparently wanting to keep a veil over the facsimiles they’re passing off as real. Multiple agencies declined to speak on the record for this article or have their autopens photographed.

“I’ve seen pens in a government office where the office next door doesn’t know they exist,” said Robert DeShazo III, who now helps run his family’s company. Exercising discretion, the DeShazos would not disclose their federal clients.

The autopens are carefully guarded under lock and keypad.

“My role is to protect the pen,” said Martina Varnado, director of the Office of Executive Secretariat in the Food and Drug Administration.

For Take Your Children to Work day last year, the FDA’s autopen was escorted by an armed security guard as it was wheeled to the auditorium for a demonstration.

The biggest government inventory of autopens is in the military, federal contract data show. At Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, Brig. Gen. Michael Rothstein prefers to personally sign certificates for commendations. But sometimes he’s too busy overseeing the service’s largest fighter wing. The autopen steps in.

“We could go all digital with these meritorious service medals and just put them into the [airmen’s] records,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Warner, Rothstein’s chief of staff. But they want to make sure that “20 years later the person has that certificate they can show their grandkids.”

For a time when he was defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld used his autopen to sign condolence letters to families of deceased service members, but he abandoned the practice after lawmakers criticized him.

Even as it flourishes inside government, the pen has already entered the realm of historical artifact. It’s the last in an exhibit of signatures dating from 1783 that opened last month at the National Archives.

The autopen makers admit to some surprise that they’re still in business.

“My dad said 50 years ago, ‘Signature machines will go away,’ ” recalled Lindsay De-
Shazo, vice president of his family’s business. “But it’s just gone the other way.”

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