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Presidency of Barack Obama

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Megan Geuss

The Guardian

The Guardian released an interview today with the man who has been the paper's source for a few now-infamous leaked documents that revealed a vast dragnet maintained by the NSA for gathering information on communications in America. That source is Edward Snowden, 29, an employee of American defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and a former technical assistant for the CIA.

When The Guardian published a leaked document on Wednesday of last week that showed a FISA court granting the NSA power to collect the metadata pertaining to phone calls from all of Verizon's customers over a period of three months, it became one of the biggest exposures of privacy invading actions taken by the government without the public's knowledge.

That is, until the next day, when The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed slides pertaining to another NSA project called PRISM, which apparently gathered vast swaths of information on users of Google services, Facebook, Apple, and more. While the companies named in the PRISM slides have all denied participation in such a program, President Obama and a number of senators confirmed the collection of phone call metadata on Friday.

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President Obama delivered his third State of the Union speech last night before a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C.

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autopen.jpg

As noted here on Boing Boing yesterday, the US has renewed three key provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that were to have expired last night at midnight, granting four more years of overly broad surveillance of Americans. After the Senate and House rushed the extension with only a few lawmakers drawing attention to civil liberties concerns, the bill went before President Obama, to be signed into law.

What makes this news even more depressing? The president, who is on tour in Europe, didn't even sign it in person. According to a White House spokesperson, Obama used a device called an autopen, which mechanically reproduces a human signature.

This was an act so important that it must be signed into law at once to protect us from what Harry Reid suggested could be immediate terrorist acts, but not so important that the president might be inconvenienced during a foreign trip to return to Washington, D.C.

A Reuters item is here. Gawker has a timeline of Great Moments in Autopen History here, and links to this video (animated gif, Flash-ified?) of an autopen device in action. Over at the New York Times, Michael Shear notes that it's unclear whether president Bush ever used an autopen to sign a bill into law.

ABC News examines the constitutionality of using an autopen here, but that isn't enough to comfort conservative Georgia Republican congressman Tom Graves, who sent an email to reporters today:

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. 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.

I don't know that I agree with Graves' fears (a wink! a squeeze!). But something just seems wrong about automating the process of signing this particular bill into law, given its far-reaching implications for the privacy and liberty of all Americans, and all the secrecy this law entails.

Maybe I'm having a Bill Keller moment: maybe the technology doesn't matter, and the analog ceremony of a human hand and a pen and a piece of paper is just familiar theater. But in this case, could the president have been any more detached?

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