SEPTEMBER 11: WILL TERROR PANEL'S REPORT BE AN EL

A new political battle is brewing over the federal panel investigating the 9/11 terror attacks, NEWSWEEK has learned. Facing a May deadline that many members no longer think they can meet, the panel is weighing asking Congress for more time to prepare its report. Some members want a few extra months--which would push back its release into the summer. But the prospect of unleashing the report in the middle of the election season is creating anxiety inside the White House. Some aides fear that the document will contain fresh ammo for Democrats eager to prove Bush was inattentive to terrorism warnings prior to 9/11. As a result, Bush officials recently floated a surprise strategic switch: they might OK a delay, but only if the report were put off until December, thereby "taking it out of the election," said a commission source. Late last week, though, the White House told the commission it was sticking with its longstanding position of no give on the May deadline.

If the commission has suggestions about how to improve defenses, "we need to know now," a White House spokeswoman said.

Still, the issue of a new deadline for the 9/11 report was described by commission sources as the subject of highly sensitive negotiations. Fueling them: frustration over administration delays in delivering documents and cumbersome hurdles imposed on sensitive national-security materials. (Commissioners, including chair Thomas Kean, have complained that they are permitted only to review certain presidential documents in highly secure rooms and are barred from taking their own notes back to their offices.) "It might have been possible to satisfy the [May] deadline if everything had gone perfectly in terms of cooperation and logistics," says Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic panel member. But that didn't happen and now "there's a consensus" the panel needs more time, adds Ben-Veniste, who wants a two-month extension. There are also intense talks over whether top Bush aides, like Condoleezza Rice, will be called to testify in public hearings; White House lawyers are resisting letting any presidential advisers get grilled in public.

Despite these roadblocks, some sources say, the panel has uncovered new evidence of bungling by federal agencies. The first glimpse is likely to come later this month when the panel holds a public hearing that will explore how the 9/11 hijackers got visas to enter the country--and the failure to place some of the terrorists known to the U.S. intelligence community on government watch lists.