GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Captives watch in confusion as workers weld fences around new soccer fields, part of the Pentagon's plan to improve prison camp conditions. Around the base, U.S. troops arrive on regular rotations and wonder what comes next.
Everyone here knows that President Barack Obama ordered the prison camps emptied by Jan. 22. But aside from the president's executive order posted at the prison camps, signs of the coming shutdown are hard to find.
These are days of uncertainty at this remote outpost in southeast Cuba.
"Some detainees are saying, `You are still doing construction. Are we leaving or not?' '' says Zaki, an Islamic cultural advisor who doesn't want his last name published for fear of retribution.
The guards have no answers: "We just say, `It's coming.' '' The renovations will continue, he says, "until the last detainee.''
Even as they do, Washington politicians churned this past week with opposition to bringing the men to U.S. soil.
When the detainees do leave, so will the guards and interrogators, commanders and contractors at Joint Task Force Guantánamo, 2,000-plus men and women now on temporary assignment among the 7,000 troops and civilians living here.
The Navy will still need sailors and other workers at the airstrip, port, and base hospital for the Marines on the fenceline and other U.S. forces who come and go.
But there will be trailer parks to dismantle and cells to sweep, shackles to send stateside and brainstorming about what to do with a sprawling, razor-wire-ringed detention facility.
A Washington, D.C., judge has ordered that the prison camps themselves be kept intact as potential evidence in unlawful detention suits being heard in federal court.
Guantánamo Bay, the Navy's oldest overseas base, has long weathered a succession of challenges -- from the Bay of Pigs through the 1994-95 rafter surge to the prison camps that have become the defining image of America's lone military outpost on communist soil.
The uncertainty of the moment is waiting for the Obama administration to decide what to do with the 240 or so remaining prisoners who were swept up in the war on terror, many held here with no charges for more than seven years.
Attorney General Eric Holder, whom President Barack Obama has tasked with determining what to do with the captives, recently appealed to European allies to accept some. For now, prosecutors are studying each detainee's file, deciding which cases to bring to trial. The Holder team is also struggling with how to constitutionally hold others who can't be tried but are too dangerous to release.
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Johnston, the base public works officer, compares what is coming with "a big auto plant closing in a town.''
With one key difference: There will be no idle workers looking for jobs. The Pentagon controls the flow of mostly foreign contractors, which today number about 2,000 Filipinos and Jamaicans who work between the base and the prison camps. Those with no jobs must go home.
WHAT'S ON THE BASE
Even before the arrival of al Qaeda suspects, there was an airstrip and seaport here used by the Coast Guard and Navy to search for drugs and rafters in the Caribbean. Marines stood guard over the watchtowers and patrolled on the U.S. side of a Cuban minefield.
Under a 1996 law, the United States cannot give the base back or renegotiate the century-old lease -- the United States pays $4,085 annually -- until there's a democratic Cuba.