President Obama on Thursday will again call for the closure of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, even as his Pentagon asks Congress for $450 million more to keep the facility open, stoking doubts about whether the president will live up to a glaringly unfulfilled campaign promise.
With his much anticipated-speech at the National Defense University, Obama is hoping to quell criticism -- much of it from fellow Democrats -- that his security policies fail to protect fundamental American principles. And the remarks come as Obama faces even more scrutiny for his Justice Department's secret monitoring of journalists in its hunt for press leaks, raising further questions about an aggressive set of counterterrorism policies.
Obama has long blamed Congress for his failure to shutter Guantanamo, after lawmakers essentially blocked Obama's executive order, issued during his first week in office, that would have closed the facility. But White House officials insist that Obama on Thursday will offer alternatives that don't require congressional approval.
"The president is considering a range of options for ways that we can reduce the population there and move towards ultimate closure -- some of which we can take on our own, but some of which will require working with the Congress," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.
At the same time, however, the Pentagon is pressing for roughly $450 million for maintaining and upgrading Guantanamo, renovations that could take up to a decade to complete if approved. Some see a contradiction in Obama calling for the facility's closure as his own Defense Department tries to pump more money into the covert prison -- and White House officials would not comment on the funding request.
Administration officials said Obama will finally fill a vacant State Department position that oversees the transfer of detainees and recommend a review board to break the logjam of transferal cases. Critics are demanding a timetable for such actions, noting the president has set no discernible benchmarks.
Of most concern to human-rights groups, 86 Guantanamo prisoners have been cleared for transfer but still face indefinite detention off the coast of Cuba. The president could instruct the Pentagon to move those prisoners but has opted not to do so -- and just a handful of the 166 detainees at the facility are facing actual charges.
"That's an excuse," Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said of Obama's complaints about Congress. "We're at the point now where I think the president realizes he has to take what action he can before he works with Congress. They'll be more amenable once they've seen he's actually done something."
And ongoing protests by detainees in Guantanamo are upping pressure on Obama to act. More than 100 prisoners are now on a hunger strike, many of whom are being force fed by their guards.
Many Republicans are adamantly opposed to closing Guantanamo, but Obama is counting on a small number willing to back him, including his former presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent more than five years in a Vietnamese prison camp.
"He's never come up with a viable plan," said McCain. "We have already committed to try to work with the president to close Guantanamo. The devil is in the details."