U.N. ambassadors from several nations are disputing assertions by Sen. John Kerry that he met for hours with all members of the U.N. Security Council just a week before voting in October 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
An investigation by this journalist that while the candidate did talk for an unspecified period to at least a few members of the panel, no such meeting, as described by Kerry on a number of occasions over the past year, ever occurred.
At the second presidential debate earlier this month, Kerry said he was more attuned to international concerns on Iraq than President Bush, citing his meeting with the entire Security Council.
"This president hasn't listened. I went to meet with the members of the Security Council in the week before we voted. I went to New York. I talked to all of them, to find out how serious they were about really holding Saddam Hussein accountable," Kerry said of the Iraqi dictator.
Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in December 2003, Kerry explained that he understood the "real readiness" of the United Nations to "take this seriously" because he met "with the entire Security Council, and we spent a couple of hours talking about what they saw as the path to a united front in order to be able to deal with Saddam Hussein."
But of the five ambassadors on the Security Council in 2002 who were reached directly for comment, four said they had never met Kerry. The four also said that no one who worked for their countries' U.N. missions had met with Kerry either.
The former ambassadors who said on the record they had never met Kerry included the representatives of Mexico, Colombia and Bulgaria. The ambassador of a fourth country gave a similar account on the condition that his country not be identified.
Ambassador Andres Franco, the permanent deputy representative from Colombia during its Security Council membership from 2001 to 2002, said, "I never heard of anything."
Although Franco was quick to note that Kerry could have met some members of the panel, he also said, "Everything can be heard in the corridors."
Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Mexico's then-ambassador to the United Nations, said, "There was no meeting with John Kerry before Resolution 1441, or at least not in my memory."
All had vivid recollections of the time frame when Kerry traveled to New York, as it was shortly before the Nov. 7, 2002, enactment of Resolution 1441, which said Iraq was in "material breach" of earlier disarmament resolutions and warned Baghdad of "serious consequences as a result of its continued violations."
Stefan Tafrov, Bulgaria's ambassador at the time, said he remembers the period well because it "was a very contentious time."
After conversations with ambassadors from five members of the Security Council in 2002 and calls to all the missions of the countries then on the panel, this journalist was only able to confirm directly that Kerry had met with representatives of France, Singapore and Cameroon.
In addition, second-hand accounts have Kerry meeting with representatives of Britain.
When reached for comment last week, an official with the Kerry campaign stood by the candidate's previous claims that he had met with the entire Security Council.
But after being told late yesterday of the results of the investigation, the Kerry campaign issued a statement that read in part, "It was a closed meeting and a private discussion."
A Kerry aide refused to identify who participated in the meeting.
The statement did not repeat Kerry's claims of a lengthy meeting with the entire 15-member Security Council, instead saying the candidate "met with a group of representatives of countries sitting on the Security Council."
Asked whether the international body had any records of Kerry sitting down with the whole council, a U.N. spokesman said, "Our office does not have any record of this meeting."
A U.S. official with intimate knowledge of the Security Council's actions in fall of 2002 said that he was not aware of any meeting Kerry had with members of the panel.
An official at the U.S. mission to the United Nations remarked, "We were as surprised as anyone when Kerry started talking about a meeting with the Security Council."
Jean-David Levitte, then France's chief U.N. representative and now his country's ambassador to the United States, said through a spokeswoman that Kerry did not have a single group meeting as the senator has described, but rather several one-on-one or small-group encounters.
He added that Kerry did not meet with every member of the Security Council, only "some" of them. Levitte could only name himself and Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock of Britain as the Security Council members with whom Kerry had met.
One diplomat who met with Kerry in 2002 said on the condition of anonymity that the candidate talked to "a few" ambassadors on the Security Council.
The revelation that Kerry never met with the entire U.N. Security Council could be problematic for the Massachusetts senator, as it clashes with one of his central foreign-policy campaign themes -- honesty.
At a New Mexico rally last month, Kerry said President Bush will "do anything he can to cover up the truth." At what campaign aides billed as a major foreign-policy address, Kerry said at New York University last month, "The first and most fundamental mistake was the president's failure to tell the truth to the American people."
In recent months, Kerry has faced numerous charges of dishonesty from Vietnam veterans over his war record, and his campaign has backtracked before from previous statements about Kerry's foreign diplomacy.
For example, in March, Kerry told reporters in Florida that he'd met with foreign leaders who privately endorsed him.
"I've met with foreign leaders who can't go out and say this publicly," he said. "But, boy, they look at you and say: 'You've got to win this. You've got to beat this guy. We need a new policy.' "
But the senator refused to document his claim and a review by The Washington Times showed that Kerry had made no official foreign trips since the start of 2002, according to Senate records and his own published schedules. An extensive review of Kerry's domestic travel schedule revealed only one opportunity for him to have met foreign leaders here.
After a week of bad press, Kerry foreign-policy adviser Rand Beers said the candidate "does not seek, and will not accept, any such endorsements."
The Democrat has also made his own veracity a centerpiece of his campaign, calling truthfulness "the fundamental test of leadership."
Kerry closed the final debate by recounting what his mother told him from her hospital bed, "Remember: integrity, integrity, integrity."
In an interview published in the new issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Kerry was asked what he would want people to remember about his presidency.
He responded, "That it always told the truth to the American people."