The Cable

Here’s Why a French Reporter Asked Obama About the Death Penalty

President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel took to podiums in the White House Rose Garden on Friday to threaten new, broader economic sanctions against Russia unless it backs off of its aggressive military actions in Ukraine. But one of the only questions they took from the media was on an entirely different subject: A French* reporter asked the president about the morality of the United States continuing to allow the death penalty, in light of a botched execution in Oklahoma that left a convicted killer gasping and moaning before he died.

At first blush, the reporter's question may have seemed like a wasted opportunity to press Obama and Merkel on their policy with Ukraine and Russia. But the question wasn't out of left field: European leaders have a long history of protesting executions in the United States because the drugs used in many lethal injections were once produced in Europe. In December 2011, The EU blocked the United States from importing the chemicals used in virtually every lethal injection at the time: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. EU officials have repeatedly called for the "universal abolition" of the death penalty, which they deride as inhumane and barbaric.

Obama fielded the question on Friday, providing his first remarks on the controversy since Clayton Lockett's execution went awry. He had been sentenced to death for murder and a variety of other charges after he and two accomplices attacked and sexually assaulted two teenage women, one of whom Lockett shot twice and then buried alive.

The incident was "deeply troubling," Obama said, adding that he had asked the Attorney General Eric Holder to review how death-row inmates are killed. He did not elaborate, beyond saying he wants to know which steps were taken, both in Lockett's execution and "more broadly."

"I think we do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues," Obama said, while nevertheless expressing support for keeping the death penalty alive in certain serious and grotesque violent crimes, like mass shootings and the killing of children.

The death-penalty chemical issue has been a serious one in Europe for years. It erupted after the U.S drug company Hospira announced in 2011 that it was halting production of the sodium thiopental drug Pentothal in the face of broad global opposition. European companies began cutting the United States off from execution drugs afterward, heightening the crisis for U.S. prison officials.

The issue received national attention in the United States in January, after another convicted killer in Ohio, Dennis McGuire, 53, was put to death using a new two-drug cocktail of drugs that left him gasping and snorting for more than 25 minutes. Ohio used a combination of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative, to execute McGuire, who raped and stabbed a pregnant 22-year-old woman to death in 1989. Prison officials said he did not feel any pain, but that they would up the dosage in future executions.

On Tuesday, the issue came up again during the failed execution of Lockett, age 38. Prison officials used a different new - and secret - combination of drugs in his case. Prison officials have attributed the problems in Lockett's case to a collapsed vein in his groin, which effectively prevented the lethal drugs from entering his bloodstream smoothly. Lockett, officials said, also was zapped with a Taser electroshock device shortly before his execution. He ultimately died of a heart attack.

Correction, May 2, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated the nationality of the reporter who questioned the United States' continued use of the death penalty. He is French. (Return to reading.)


National Security

GOP Renews War With Obama Over Benghazi

The release of new White House e-mails related to the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi has rejuvenated Republican efforts to investigate and condemn the Obama administration's handling of the deadly incident -- a saga that is now likely to play out for at least the next few months, and could linger as an issue in the 2016 presidential elections.

On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner scheduled a vote to establish a select committee dedicated to investigating the Benghazi attack, a move conservative Republicans had urged Boehner to make for more than year. It came just hours after Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, took the unprecedented step of issuing a subpoena designed to compel Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before his panel on May 21.

The aggressive moves will force the Obama administration to dedicate more time to answering questions about Benghazi it insists have already been answered. But they will also test Boehner's ability to keep his party united behind an investigation that treads on the turf of powerful Republican chairmen in the committees that oversee the military, intelligence community and the State Department.

"There's a danger in pushing this and overdoing it," Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview. "It reinforces the idea that House Republicans only do two things: pass bills to repeal Obamacare and investigate Benghazi."

Many in the party disagree with that notion and the idea that Benghazi isn't worth investigating 19 months after the attack. They point to some 40 recently disclosed e-mails that show a White House official advising Susan Rice, then the ambassador to the United Nations, on what to say during Sunday talk show interviews three days after the attack occurred.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Obama administration attributed the attacks in Libya to an anti-Muslim video that inspired many protests across the Muslim world. Republicans have long insisted, without definitive proof, that the administration blamed the anti-Muslim video to deflect criticisms of its broader policies during a heated election year. Giving ammunition to that view, the e-mails released this week show White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes stressing the need to emphasize "that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy failure."

Boehner said those e-mails should've never been hidden from Congress -- an act the amounts to a "flagrant violation of trust and undermines the basic principles of oversight."

"The House will vote to establish a new select committee to investigate the attack, provide the necessary accountability, and ensure justice is finally served," Boehner said Friday.

White House press secretary Jay Carney insists that Republicans are misinterpreting the e-mails. He says they weren't explicitly addressing the Benghazi attack but the overall environment of protests erupting across the Muslim world in response to the amateurish video mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

In any event,  Boehner and Issa's combined actions guarantee a drawn out battle over Benghazi into the summer that could extend into the November elections and beyond -- a fact that won't upset Republicans looking to highlight a scandal involving Hillary Clinton's tenure at the State Department.

But Republicans are not as united on the proper way of investigating Benghazi as some might believe. Although Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) succeeded in gathering an impressive 190 cosponsors for his bill to establish a select committee, some notable names are missing from the list: Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

For over a year, a number of GOP investigators on the relevant committees have privately opposed the idea of a select committee, which would duplicate their efforts and lessen the impact of their investigations overall. That's why it probably wasn't a coincidence that Issa's subpoena announcement came just hours before Boehner's committee announcement.

"That Issa would preempt the special committee tells you something about him," said Ornstein. "He's pretty aggressively protecting his own turn and he's clearly not in sync with his own leadership."

Issa, however, avoided the outward appearance of opposing the establishment of a rival committee. He has never signed his name onto Wolf's bill, but he issued a statement Friday praising Boehner's move.

"I support Speaker Boehner's decision and will work to share the insight we have learned at the Oversight Committee" he said.

In the same breath, he emphasized the continued relevance of his own committee and investigatory efforts.  "The Oversight Committee still expects Secretary Kerry to appear subject to subpoena on May 21," he said.

The State Department, meanwhile, is furious about the subpoena. Not only did Issa not previously request an interview or written testimony by Kerry, but the request does not take into effect Kerry's busy travel schedule during a time of tumult around the world, they say.

"He's scheduled to be in Mexico on the 21st, which is the date that [the committee] has asked him to testify," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf at the daily press briefing. "We are surprised that in the first instance, they resorted to a subpoena given we've been cooperating all along with the committee and did not reach out before they did so." 

She declined to say if the secretary would comply with the request. "We were surprised about this ... given that we've been cooperating," she said. "And we'll see where we go from here."

Getty Images