Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" – a "beautiful story" but also "a lie"?

Greg Mortenson, higly esteemed author and philanthropic constructor of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, has had his integrity called into question by a "60 Minutes" report.

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    Mortenson, pictured here with Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs Admiral Mullen, who has been an avid supporter of Mortenson's work building schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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A 60 Minutes investigation charged that “Three Cups of Tea” author Greg Mortenson fabricated some of the accounts in his beloved bestseller and his charity may have mishandled donations.

The CBS report, aired Sunday evening, claimed several passages from “Three Cups of Tea,” including the opening anecdote, were false. It also revealed that Mr. Mortenson’s charity, Central Asia Institute (CAI), spends more for book promotion and publicity than it does actually building schools overseas.

Mortenson defended himself in his hometown Bozeman Chronicle newspaper, denying several allegations and explaining others. He also issued a statement in which he said, “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.”

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In “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson opens with an account of getting lost while mountain climbing in rural Pakistan and stumbling upon the village of Korphe in 1993. According to the book, the residents of Korphe nursed Mortenson back to health and it was their kindness that inspired the author and philanthropist to build a school.

“It’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie,” said Jon Krakauer, mountaineer and author of “Into Thin Air,” in the CBS report.

According to Mr. Krakauer and porters who joined Mortenson on his mountain trip, Mortenson never visited Korphe on his descent and only visited the village a year later, in 1994.

In a Bozeman Chronicle story, Mortenson conceded the opening anecdote wasn’t literally true. “I stand by the story of ‘Three Cups of Tea'… The time about our final days on K2 and ongoing journey to Korphe village and Skardu is a compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.”

Mortenson also claims he was captured by the Taliban and held for several days before being released, a claim CBS debunks in its report.

The CAI has “successfully established over 170 schools” and helped educate over 68,000 students, with an emphasis on girls' education,” according to the institute’s website.

However, the CBS report alleges that many of the 170 schools Mortenson’s charity built in Pakistan and Afghanistan either don't exist or were built by others.

On its report, “60 Minutes” said it visited almost 30 of the schools Mortenson alleged to have built. Roughly half were empty, built by someone else, or not receiving any support.

Mortenson’s personal assistant, Jeff McMillan, told The New York Times “that in some cases, the charity had paid for the building of the schools, while in others, it underwrites things like teachers’ salaries and supplies.”

According to the Times story, “He also said that the Afghan school year began on March 23. ‘I don’t know when CBS was there, but if it was when school was out, the schools would appear to be empty,’ he said.”

New York Times bestseller “Three Cups of Tea” became a worldwide publishing sensation, selling more than three million copies and being translated into 47 languages. The book recounts Mortenson's mission to build schools in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan as a way to educate girls and counter extremism.

President Barack Obama, and many Pentagon and State Department officials including Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, are avid supporters of Mortenson’s work. Mr. Obama donated $100,000 from his Nobel Prize money to the charity, and the books is required reading for members of US Armed Services heading to Afghanistan.

The CAI reported an income of $14 million in 2009. But less than half that money, 41 percent, was actually used to build schools. The remainder went toward book promotion and publicity, Mortenson’s travel expenses, and administrative costs.

Several CAI board members quit in 2002 saying “Greg uses CAI as a private ATM machine,” according to the 60 Minutes report.

Mortenson sometimes hires charter jets to fly to speaking engagements, according to 60 Minutes, for which he usually charges $30,000. That money, along with book royalties, does not feed into his charity.

On its website, the CAI addressed many of the allegations brought up in the 60 Minutes investigation.

“Through his work empowering communities in some of the most remote areas in the world, and through his successful books that share the stories of his experiences, Greg has accomplished the real and extraordinary work of bringing education to girls and boys in Pakistan and Afghanistan who otherwise would have no educational opportunity to enable them to help themselves and their communities,” the CAI board wrote on the website. “It would be truly tragic if the sensationalized allegations against him were to harm the future of this crucial work.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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