The panel investigating 9/11, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, will this week grill national security adviser Condo- leezza Rice over disputed claims she made about classified intelligence warning of an imminent attack by al-Qa'ida, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Members of the independent commission have indicated they will press Ms Rice to explain why claims she has publicly made about a lack of intelligence appear to directly contradict the findings of an earlier congressional inquiry. The revelation of a possible confrontation between Ms Rice and the panel members will add to the already mounting pressure facing the White House as it prepares for her to give testimony on Thursday.
The 9/11 Commission meeting in Washington is trying to establish what the Bush administration did or did not know about the threat of a possible attack from al-Qa'ida after it came to office in January 2001. Controversy was initially sparked by Mr Bush's former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke who claimed warnings he gave to the new administration were repeatedly ignored.
Ms Rice and other senior officials have sought to refute these charges but in doing so she may have made matters more difficult for herself. In an article she wrote for The Washington Post on 23 March, she said: "Despite what some have suggested, we received no intelligence that terrorists were preparing to attack the homeland using airplanes as missiles..."
However, a report issued by an earlier investigation into the intelligence failures surrounding the attacks appears to directly contradict that claim. That report - by the Senate select committee on intelligence and the House permanent select committee on intelligence joint inquiry - was published in December 2002.
In its conclusions, it said: "Beginning in 1998 and continuing into the summer of 2001, the intelligence community received a modest, but relatively steady, stream of intelligence reporting that indicated the possibility of terrorist attacks within the United States ... From at least 1994, and continuing into the summer of 2001, the intelligence community received information indicating that terrorists were contemplating, among other means of attack, the use of aircraft as weapons."
Two members of the 9/11 Commission have told the IoS they will press Ms Rice on this potentially damaging issue. David Ben-Veniste, a partner with the law firm Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw, said: "I think there is a significant record of statements which have been made. It is our job to cull through these statements and get at the true facts. To the extent that there are apparent discrepancies - this is an area we will pursue."
Jane Gorelick, another commission member, said the panel had pushed Ms Rice on this issue when she appeared privately before the panel. She said Mr Ben-Veniste had led the questioning on this topic. "I think [Ms Rice] said she was now saying 'we did not know' [rather than] 'she did not know'."
When it was pointed out Ms Rice had written in the Post after meeting privately with the commission, Ms Gorelick conceded there could be inconsistencies. "There is a fairly long record that the intelligence community was receiving reports that said planes could be used as missiles and there were in fact previous events when that occurred."
Asked if Ms Rice would be pressed on this, she said: "I would be surprised if we had two-and-a-half-hours with her and it did not come up!"
The controversy surrounding Ms Rice's claims has been further fuelled by comments from a former FBI translator. Sibel Edmonds said last week she had testified in private to the commission and provided them with details that revealed there was widespread intelligence before 9/11 that al-Qa'ida was planning to attack the US with aircraft. Mrs Edmonds said Ms Rice's claim that there was no such information was "an outrageous lie".
"I gave [the commission] details of specific investigation files, the specific dates, specific target information, specific managers in charge of the investigation. I gave them everything so that they could go back and follow up," she said.
Mrs Edmonds, 33, a Turkish-American who speaks Turkish, Farsi and Azerbaijani, was encouraged to give evidence by four women from New Jersey who were widowed by the September attacks. The women, Kristen Breitweiser, Mindy Kleinberg, Lorie Van Auken and Patty Casazza, are perhaps more responsible than anyone for the establishment of the commission and for Ms Rice's decision to appear in public before it.
The women, who call themselves the "Jersey Girls" after a Bruce Springsteen song, have constantly badgered and pestered the commission members. "They call me all the time," the commission's chairman, told The New York Times. "They monitor us, they follow our progress, they've provided us with some of the best questions we've asked. I doubt very much if we would be in existence without them."
The woman - three of whose husbands worked for the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald whose offices were on the upper floors of the World Trade Centre - have little interest in such fame. But they are not afraid to make their point. When the White House declined to dispatch Ms Rice to the hearings the four women, along with the relatives of other victims, walked out in silent protest
Mrs Breitweiser, 33, said: "We simply wanted to know why our husbands were killed - why they went to work one day and didn't come back. There are no victories here. A victory implies that this is a game and this is not a game."
Mrs Edmonds said she was persuaded of the women's mettle when she read in The New York Observer of their confrontation with the FBI director Robert Mueller - her former boss - in a private meeting last summer. She felt these women could be her best chance of getting her story out. "This was the first time I'd heard anybody ask such direct questions to Mr Mueller," she said.