GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- The Puerto Rican National Guard is heading home soon, and soldiers from their Virgin Islands and Rhode Island counterparts are mobilizing for yearlong tours at the detention center President Barack Obama said he would shut in January.
Commanders say they can still systematically airlift all 223 detainees out of here, on time, if the Obama administration finds places to put them. But they are preparing -- for fresh forces to soon start patrolling the cell blocks, and for how to manage rebelling prisoners if a missed deadline triggers unrest.
Long before the White House begrudgingly acknowledged that it may not meet its shut-down date, the Pentagon was preparing for a longer prison-camp stay.
"The last order we received was signed last January by the president. It says, 'Close and cease detention operations by this January.' So until such time somebody changes that for us, we are planning to be able to reach that goal,'' said the latest prison camps commander, Rear Adm. Tom Copeman, who arrived in June on an assignment that could last two years.
It's not that soldiers and sailors at this remote base are unaware of what Copeman called the "churn'' in political Washington over whether the prison camps can be emptied on time. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went on the Sunday morning talk show circuit last month to say there might be trouble in meeting the commander-in-chief's timetable.
Then came the Saturday Night Live skit, re-broadcast on this base via the Armed Forces Network, mocking Obama for his as-yet unfulfilled campaign promises, chief among them his Jan. 22 pledge to empty the prison camps within a year.
For months, Congress has thrown up a series of obstacles to closing it down. It banned the release of detainees into the United States, shifting the onus mostly to Europe to resettle detainees that an Obama task force has declared safe enough to let go. It requires 45 days notice before a captive may leave here to face charges in a federal court.
The House of Representatives capped it last week with a 258-163 nonbinding resolution that said, even in prison, keep detainees off U.S. soil -- then stoked uncertainty Wednesday when key congressional negotiators struck a compromise deal that would allow some Guantánamo detainees into the U.S. only for trial.
The White House "grossly miscalculated the difficulties in doing this properly'' and never sold an effective plan to Congress, said Heritage Foundation scholar Cully Stimson, who ran detainee affairs at the Pentagon during the Bush administration.
So "the military simply has to assume the mission will continue until they're told definitely otherwise. If we acted on what presidents say versus what presidents order then we're going to be in this sort of push-me, pull-me twilight zone. And the military cannot live in that kind of world.''
Meantime, as it prepares for its ninth year, the Pentagon has sought to shift the spotlight away from the prison camps whose fate has yet to be scripted.
Journalists this week were given a stark choice on what they could report on at this base that once hummed with mix-and-match media opportunities:
Fly in from Fort Lauderdale on Monday and tour the showcase detention center, which a German TV crew did Tuesday.
Or fly in from Andrews Air Force Base on Monday and cover only Toronto-born Omar Khadr's war court appearance, which two Canadian writers and The Miami Herald did Wednesday.