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’60 Minutes’ and ‘Three Cups of Tea’: What I saw in Afghanistan with Greg Mortenson

Steve Kroft investigates the claims made by author Greg Mortenson in this bestseller “Three Cups of Tea.”

One of the more harrowing flights I’ve taken while working over the years as an international correspondent came in 2004 after I turned down an invitation to travel with Greg Mortenson, who later rose to fame with the publication of his best-selling book, “Three Cups of Tea.”

I needed to fly from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Islamabad, Pakistan. Mortenson and his crew were going the same way, and he offered seats on a private plane. No thanks, I said. I came to second-guess myself during the next few hours — I’ll tell you why in a minute.

But I had no doubts then and now about the appropriateness of turning down a ride with a friendly Minnesota native who seemed to know his way through that treacherous war zone. Journalistic skepticism was the reason.

Now, the newest twist in the Mortenson story suggests that everyone could benefit from a bit of that skepticism.

Alleged lies
On Sunday, the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” reported that Mortenson fabricated some of the stories in his book, including the defining narrative about the inspiration for his mission to build schools in remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mortenson’s account is that he failed his attempt in 1993 to climb K2, the world’s second highest peak, and then got lost on the descent. He says he stumbled nearly dead into the remote village of Korphe, Pakistan, and people there nursed him back to health. Meanwhile, he experienced an epiphany and came to realize his life’s mission: building schools in such villages where girls would be welcome.

The investigative report by correspondent Steve Kroft quotes native porters who dispute the story, saying that Mortenson was not lost and did not visit Korphe until a year after the trek. It quotes other Pakistanis who dispute his claim that he was kidnapped by the Taliban in 1996.

"Three Cups of Tea"

It also alleges that Mortenson’s charitable organization — Central Asia Institute based in Bozeman, Mont. — has taken credit for building schools that do not exist or were built by others.

Further, it says that Mortenson’s charity has spent more money in the United States promoting his books and talking about education in Pakistan and Afghanistan than it spent actually building and supporting schools there. And it quotes experts saying that the charity has mismanaged millions of dollars with little oversight.

Mortenson’s defense
In a statement posted on his charity’s website before the “60 Minutes” program aired, Mortenson characterized the report as an unjustified attack.

“I stand by the information conveyed in my book, and by the value of CAI’s work in empowering local communities to build and operate schools that have educated more than 60,000 students,” he says.

He suggests that resistance in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the very essence of his mission — educating girls — is the reason some people there have discredited his story: “Afghanistan and Pakistan are fascinating, inspiring countries full of wonderful people. They are also complex places torn by conflicting loyalties, and some who do not want our mission of educating girls to succeed.”

And he vows to carry on: “I continue to be heartened by the many messages of support I receive from our local partners in cities and villages across Afghanistan and Pakistan, who are determined not to let unjustified attacks stop the important work being done to create a better future for their children.”

Later, Mortenson posted a longer statement [PDF] defending his work. And the Institute’s board of directors responded to specific questions here. [PDF] Mortenson is one of the three board members.

Among other responses, the board acknowledges that just 41 percent of the money the Institute spent in 2009 went to schools in Central Asia, but adds that a good portion of the reminder went to other aspects of the Institute’s mission: creating cross-cultural awareness and educating the American and international public about the need for such schools.

Minnesota home
My first contact with Mortenson came a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He telephoned the Star Tribune newsroom from Pakistan where he was working at the time. The call was transferred to my desk.

It was clear that reprisal would fall on Afghanistan and maybe Pakistan too. Mortenson wanted to spread the word that the ordinary mountain people he knew were not enemies of the United States and did not condone terrorism. It was critical that the United States cultivate Muslim sympathizers in the region, he stressed.

Greg Mortenson
Greg Mortenson

Mortenson, now 53, was the son of Lutheran missionaries who called Minnesota home although the family lived in Tanzania during part of his childhood. He graduated from high school in Minnesota, and most of his family continued to live in the Twin Cities after he married and moved to Montana. On his visits home over the years, he occasionally met me for tea.

His stories about building schools and women’s education programs were intriguing. But thanks to ingrained journalistic skepticism, I choose not to write about them until I could see his work for myself.

Building a mountain school
The chance came in 2004 when the Star Tribune sent a photographer and me to Afghanistan. We made time to visit a Mortenson project in Lalander, a rural mountain village with no electricity, running water or school.

The villagers greeted Mortenson enthusiastically. He conversed with them in Pashto while inspecting the eight-room stone school house that was rising on a mountainside plateau. Like the legendary Pied Piper of Hamelin, he was followed by kids everywhere he walked in the village that day.

It was just one of the dozens of schools Mortenson’s charity claims to have built. And I certainly can’t claim to have verified his entire program.

But the school I saw was real and clearly welcome in the village. Since then other journalists and even U.S. military officers have visited his various projects too, and they have verified that at least some of his work measures up to his claims.

I also met with Mortenson in Kabul. He was staying at a dusty, fly-infested guest house, not an expensive hotel. It was there that Mortenson learned we were going to Islamabad at about the same time and offered a ride. He and his staff had arranged for seats on a plane flown by Pakistani military officers he had met over the years, he said, and there was room for us.

My instincts forced me to say, “No thanks.”

Rocket attacks and redirected flight
The region’s politics seethed with intrigue at the time. I didn’t know Mortenson’s Pakistani friends and their political affiliations. For that matter, I didn’t know his political ties in the region.

What I did know was that the government in Islamabad was looking for any reason to hassle American journalists. Getting visas to even pass through Pakistan had been extremely difficult. And when we’d done that a few weeks earlier military “minders” openly trailed us, even standing watch outside the doors of our hotel rooms.

Moreover, it wouldn’t be right to accept a ride from the potential subject of an article.

So we boarded a Pakistan International Airlines flight. Only after takeoff did we learn we would not fly directly to Islamabad as scheduled. We couldn’t land there because a runway needed repair.

But because Kabul had been under a siege of rocket attacks, the Pakistanis did not want to leave their plane on the ground there. Instead, they flew us to the crossroads of the struggle with the Taliban: Peshawar, a city in the frontier tribal area where security is so shaky that the U.S. Consulate recently suspended operations there.

We sat in the airport for hours under the glare of long beards who clearly disapproved of two women travelling without their men. Our plane finally took off into the eye of a raging storm, shuddering so violently in the turbulence that people wept in their seats.

In Islamabad finally, we learned that Mortenson and company had enjoyed smooth flying all the way.

Mixed impressions
Still, I think I made the right decision. My impressions of Mortenson were mixed.

Our meeting in Afghanistan took place before he was blessed with fame and fortune. At that point, he had struggled for a decade to build schools in the region. I had seen other well-intentioned aid projects fizzle in far less time. If nothing else, he had determination and dedication working for him.

Some of Mortenson’s motivation almost surely was a craving for adventure. He is that type. But there are far easier ways to score a thrill than scraping up pennies for villages. You find wanderers throughout Asia who never have laid a cornerstone for a school. Mortenson had done that much.

If, as “60 Minutes” reported, some of the schools he has built over 15 years now are vacant or used for purposes such as storing grain, that would not surprise me. Many villages have changed loyalties and priorities in that war zone.

Further, Mortenson clearly had learned to navigate the nuances of Central Asia’s intricate tribal dealings. And he had assembled competent Afghan and Pakistani staffs that seemed dedicated to his cause, although one of his responses blames a disgruntled staff worker for some of the accusations “60 Minutes” aired.

On the other hand, Mortenson was maddeningly disorganized and chronically late. I expected that the organization he co-founded and ran all of those years might be more than a bit disorganized too. It was no surprise to learn he had made enemies. His co-author, David Oliver Relin, says so in the book.

Mortenson’s leaps of logic were hard to follow. He would talk to me in a torrent of words racing from subject to subject. In one of the messages [PDF] he posted on the website Sunday, Mortenson seemed to acknowledge that he doesn’t think like other people: “Although we would like the world to be linear, orderly and peaceful, the reality is that our world is a dynamic, fluid place, often filled with chaos and confusion. In that space, I thrive and get the courage to help bring change and empower people.”

A beautiful story…a lie?
The one narrative that Mortenson clearly had organized in his mind and rehearsed into a cohesive account was the story of his failed K2 climb, leading to the kind villagers who nursed him back to health and inspired his life’s work.

Now, according to “60 Minutes,” that story may not be true.

One source for the report is author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, a former donor to Mortenson’s charity.

“It’s a beautiful story. And it’s a lie,” Krakauer told Kroft of “60 Minutes.”

“I have spoken to one of his [Mortenson’s] companions, a close friend, who hiked out from K2 with him and this companion said, ‘Greg never heard of Korphe until a year later,'” Krakauer said.

Mortenson did eventually build a school in Korphe, Krakauer said. “But if you read the first few chapters of that book, you realize, ‘I am being taken for a ride here.'”

But Krakauer also added that Mortenson is a complex person who has done much good in the world.

“He is not Bernie Madoff,” Krakauer said referring to the former stock broker. “He has helped thousands of children.”

Mortenson pledged on the website to provide further responses in the future.

Minnesota will be watching for that. Many people here have supported his cause with money and even labor, travelling to Central Asia to heft the bricks and stones that helped create Mortenson’s legend.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 04/18/2011 - 10:25 am.

    I am not entirely surprised by this. We read Three Cups of Tea in my book club (what ladies’ book club hasn’t?) and that Korphe story never rang true to me—it’s just too pat, like something out of a made-for-TV movie. Truth is frequently stranger than fiction, but the whole scenario struck me as improbable.

    I wonder whether Mortenson’s co-author had a hand in the, shall we say, exaggerations in the book? I’m not sure whether he or Mortenson is responsible for its overall tone, but it’s so worshipful of Mortenson that it verges on the ludicrous.

    Still, I don’t think we should be too hard on the guy. He’s done good work in one of the most difficult and dangerous environments in the world. Women’s education in Central Asia sorely needs advocates. People with a cause are often impatient with the grubby details of organizational life, hence the disorganization of his charity. Presumably, the information about its expenditures on 60 Minutes comes from CAI’s Form 990, which is public information accessible to anyone. They weren’t hiding anything nor is there any evidence that Mortenson’s hand was in the cookie jar in a legally questionable manner. While very embarrassing, the 60 Minutes story should not be a death blow to what is, on balance, a laudable endeavor.

  2. Submitted by John Ferman on 04/18/2011 - 11:14 am.

    Like many other breaking stories, this one just skims off-the-top information that could be suspect. As I listened, it seems the major complaint was that the book revenues were not benefiting the relief program in large enough degree. To be fair to all sides, this story deserves a fair degree of deep fact checking and investigative reporting. I am not comfortable with the current ‘smear’ level of the story. In this whole thing, we must keep our concerns for the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan foremost.

  3. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 04/18/2011 - 11:30 am.

    Seems to me we shouldn’t be making judgements based on what someone who knows someone who knows someone said. Mortenson is the first to admit his imperfections and inexperience but forged ahead anyway. He has done amazing things in a very politically complicated and dangerous part of the world, starting from scratch with nothing but the wish to do good for these people. We need more people like him in the world.

  4. Submitted by Richard Pecar on 04/18/2011 - 11:33 am.

    Thanks for a balanced viewpoint Sharon. Ann too.

    My experience leads me to believe CAI and Mortenson haven’t done badly given the geopolitical hurdles. At one time I very briefly became aware of a huge charity (“MD”), who conducted national televised telethons, and which on many ocassions held local donation drives. They split the gross proceeds 80/20 with the local sposor(s) getting the bigger number and the charity the smaller numher.

    Sixty Minutes handled this story a little like a pulp tabloid might.

  5. Submitted by Michele Olson on 04/18/2011 - 11:43 am.

    I wonder how many of those schools are vacant because the situation became too dangerous for the students? I’ve read where girls have been gassed in the classrooms; how on earth can you keep a school going under such circumstances?

    As to where the money goes, I think people would be surprised just how much of a percentage of any charity’s money goes toward publicity. As times get tough, the competition for funds gets even tougher, and publicity becomes more and more important.

    I wish that people wouldn’t focus so much on an individual for their moral compass. They will be disillusioned every time.

  6. Submitted by Renee McGivern on 04/18/2011 - 11:51 am.

    The red flag here is that an international organization with revenues of $13.9 million (2008 990) has only two board members because really, Mortenson is paid staff. In the Central Asia Institute’s latest audit on Guidestar, there is a third person listed as secretary that is not now listed on the website.

    Why, after so many years and a book haven’t more board members been engaged? Because they ask questions, require answers and insist on structure. I’d love to hear what the Bozeman auditors think of this organization.

    After 30 years in the nonprofit sector, I thought I’d seen everything. It’s appalling to have so little oversight of an international organization with net assets of $15 million.

    After the first 50 pages, I had to put the book down. I just could not spend one more minute with the man.

    Renee McGivern
    Host, Nonprofit Spark radio show

  7. Submitted by Lynda Friedman on 04/18/2011 - 12:45 pm.

    Thanks, Sharon, for a glimpse into a very complex world where stories are developed over years. For me this article is an example of the importance of skilled journalists maintaining links with sources over time. I appreciate having on-line access to your current (and past) adventures.

  8. Submitted by Bill Connell on 04/18/2011 - 02:57 pm.

    Another interesting angle is how Krakauer is publishing his article; as the first content available on an apparently brand-new self-publishing platform: There’s some interesting timing with this and the 60 Minutes story, given that Krakauer seems to have an opportunity to profit directly from the publicity.

  9. Submitted by Ryan Rodgers on 04/19/2011 - 03:21 pm.

    The media seems very enthusiastic to discover that Mortenson is using the CAI as his own checking account. Sure, reasons for suspicion have been raised, but nothing discovered is as damning as the overall reportage tone implies. A shocking number of people out there know of Mortenson and his endeavors. How many of them (myself included) would have thought for even a moment about the school children of Pakistan if it weren’t for him? More obvious than his guilt in this campaign is his high profile as a target, as 60 Minutes surely realized.

    And Krakauer, he’s a fantastic writer, but the veracity of virtually everything he’s ever written has been seriously questioned. That he considers himself a gumshoe reporter is a loss to American literature.

    One final note, does the author of this article bring anything new to the conversation other than that: 1) Mortenson immediately reacted against the rising post 9/11 anti-Muslim rage by contacting her. 2) He did build at least one school. 3) He was nice enough to offer her a plane ride that would have saved her some uncomfortable hours and mean stares from bearded men. 4) He gets excited when he speaks and doesn’t always follow through logically.

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