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Investigation throws 'Three Cups of Tea' author Greg Mortenson's charity work into doubt

MortensonAn investigation by "60 Minutes" to be broadcast this weekend will cite multiple sources that contend some of the most inspiring stories in Greg Mortenson's books "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools" are not true.

Significantly, Mortenson's origin story -- of being saved by a remote village in Afghanistan and promising to build a school for them -- appears to be a fabrication.

In a news release, the television program explains:

The heart of Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” is the story of a failed attempt in 1993 to climb the world’s second-highest peak, K2.  On the way down, Mortenson says, he got lost and stumbled, alone and exhausted, into a remote mountain village in Pakistan named Korphe. According to the book’s narrative, the villagers cared for him and he promised to return to build a school there. In a remote village in  Pakistan, 60 MINUTES found Mortenson’s porters on that failed expedition. They say Mortenson  didn’t get lost and stumble into Korphe on his way down from K2. He visited the village a year later. 

That’s what famous author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, a former donor to Mortenson’s charity, says he found out, too. “It’s a beautiful story.  And it’s a lie,” says Krakauer.  “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 tells Kroft.  Mortenson did eventually build a school in Korphe, Krakauer says, “But if you read the first few chapters of that book, you realize, ‘I am being taken for a ride here.’ ”

The story of Mortenson's efforts to support education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly their remote regions is widely known, and has helped draw many to his charity. Since opening his first school in 1997, Mortenson has been said to have been involved with establishing hundreds of schools, working with tribal leaders, Islamic clerics and militia commanders. He even survived an eight-day abduction by the Taliban.

Yet the story of his abduction has been called into question. 60 Minutes reports:

In “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson writes of being kidnapped in the Waziristan region of Pakistan in 1996. In his second book, “Stones into Schools,” Mortenson publishes a photograph of his alleged captors. In television appearances, he has said he was kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban. 60 MINUTES located three of the men in the photo, all of whom denied that they were Taliban and denied that they had kidnapped Mortenson.  One the men in the photo is the research director of a respected think tank in Islamabad, Mansur Khan Mahsud. He tells Kroft that  he and the others in the photo were Mortenson’s  protectors, not his kidnappers. “We treated him as a guest and took care of him,” says Mahsud. “This is totally false and he is lying.”  Asked why Mortenson would lie about the trip, Mahsud replies, “To sell his book.”

And according to "60 Minutes," Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute, has spent more money  in the the U.S. talking about education in Pakistan and Afghanistan than actually building and supporting schools there. The television program talks to charity waltchdog group that has concerns about the financial management of the group.

Who didn't they talk to? Greg Mortenson, who did not respond to their requests for an interview.



Cups of tea at Loyola Marymount

-- Carolyn Kellogg


Comments () | Archives (48)

The comments to this entry are closed.

I really hope this isn't true.

Greg? Care to comment?

You seem to use "Afghanistan" and "Pakistan" interchangeably in your article. You wrote "Significantly, Mortenson's origin story -- of being saved by a remote village in Afghanistan and promising to build a school for them -- appears to be a fabrication." The origin story in Three Cups of Tea is about a remote village in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

It's difficult to take any of this seriously when you don't know what country you're talking about.

I am quoted in both books and know Greg. While I cannot say anything about the veracity of his original story because I was not there I can say that spending more money in the US than on schools in the region is not hard to believe. Here is why - it takes a lot more money spent to raise money in the US than it does to build schools in remote parts of developing countries.

Perhaps Greg embellished the story - without hearing from him personally I will give him benefit of the doubt and perhaps remain suspicious until these allegations are refuted or disproved. However, I would also remain very suspicious of anyone interviewed in Pakistan/Afghanistan as well. Plenty of people there who may have an axe or two to grind with Greg for their own reasons.

Jason B. Nicholson
Major, US Army

This is certainly a sad fabrication....it is shameful that 60 minutes would stoop so low....I guess John K is doing this so his books can be as successful as Gregs, for shame.... I have met Greg and he is doing wonderful work

Greg is a scam artist who trades on and profits from human compassion and misery. He is a depraved degenerate and should be jailed.

I was assigned this book in my English class last semester and after suffering through it for the sake of an A, I can believe it was embellished. While Greg didn't write the book on his own (he had a co-author), it was really over the top in descriptions and it really did seem like quite a few things were exaggerated. Color me not surprised.

The most credible person on this page wears gold oak leaves on his collars.

Yes, human beings are human and they exaggerate and even invent.

All right then, let's compare the good work he has done with the good work YOU have done.

I am not happy about the exaggeration, but I am supportive of all of his good work.

If Mortenson and his ghost writer have used artistic license to sell more copies of the book, that is hardly unusual and, what is more, is actually not important in this context: what is important is that the more books get sold, the more people know about project, the more funds get raised and the more schools get built. I have seen a number of Mortenson's schools in Afghanistan and the impact they've had on education, particularly for girls. The issue of how Mortenson has promoted himself to raise the money pales into insignificance when you see the end result. Very few, if any, of the organisations working in Afghanistan have a completely clean track record, but at least in Mortenson's case he delivers a relatively cost-effective end-product that is rightly valued by communities and will have a long-term, positive impact. Three Cups of Tea may call into question Mortenson's story telling, but his schools on the ground should and do vindicate any misgivings misgivings about his charity work.

Of course publicly noted Pakistanis will deny being Taliban and deny being kidnappers!

What is likely is that Mortenson has done more for relations with Pakistan and Islam than the Entire US government which has spent many billions trying to "Keep us Safe" from radical Islam and told more lies than Mortenson in the process. 60 minutes seems to shy from the big targets since their network's parent company is a big status-quo corporation.

So, certain, Mortenson has built schools and inspired people to do charity. Maybe his story has some embellishments, which is unfortunate but not unheard of in biographies and auto-biographies. If it wasn't, hollywood would do it for him when they make the movie ala "Seven Years in Tibet"

Love it - all those bleeding heart liberals (and many they are) who go for this kind of mushy crap deserve it - hehehe -
By the way, heard that James Frey (?) is looking for a good story for a movie financed by Oprah - they'll sure find Mortenson's hear-warming story worth to bring it to the screen - hehehe - with a foreword by Rigoberta Mench - hehehe -
And since talking about liberals getting burned by their enlightened choices - what about the story of Barry Soetero, a little Kenyan boy who struggled with all kind of adversitites to became the first African president of the USA - hehehe - a suivre -
Cool story, Mortenson's -

Is Mr. Mortenson just another socially pleasing/guilt reducing ego jumping up and down and yelling "look at me! I'm so good!"? I hope not. Let him come forward and provide data - how many children have been schooled? Where? When? To what extent has the schooling helped them? How much money does he take in, how much goes to building schools, paying teachers, providing textbooks, etc., and how much stays in Mr. Mortenson's pocket? These are simple and reasonable questions which any charitable organization should be able to answer; and which point clearly to the value (or lack) of his work.

As far as his books go, the arguments that the ends justify the means that since other people lie and/or mislead it's not so bad just don't hold water (or tea). Making up stuff for a non fiction work is called lying, not embellishment; and its not okay no matter who does it, how its done, or what purpose it may purport to serve. My dad used to say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". He was a smart guy.

Sad to hear that he had to lie to get people to support his cause. As far as spending more on fundraising than projects, the people here saying that's not surprising as it takes more to fundraise than it does to carry out projects, have no absolutely no idea what they're talking about. Most non-profits devote less than 10%of their budgets to fundraising activities.

Sometimes, the world just need a feel good story. Helping other human beings is a noble endeavor. Bless those who do, and if this is part fiction, I hope the schools were built anyway. Education is the key, and women's education will change the world, one family at a time.
so, hehe, it's still alright. Hopefully this story has inspired others to help. For those who are skeptical, what have you done lately to help the planet?
Signed, A bleeding liberal

So this kind of completely crushes my faith in humanity. Thanks, Mr. Mortenson, my former idol, for breaking it to me that there is no good in the world.

Isn't the truth important anymore ?? Collecting money based on false pretenses is a fraud, pure and simple, no matter how many schools you build. Bernie Madoff donated millions to charities...Do you then forgive Madoff for the billions he stole from hardworking Americans. Those of you ignoring Mortenson's ALLEGED fraud should be ashamed of yourselves.

Your writing ability is a fabrication. In this paragraph...

Significantly, Mortenson's origin story -- of being saved by a remote village
in Afghanistan and promising to build a school for them -- appears to be a

...you don't even mention the correct country. It is Pakistan, not Afghanistan!

Maybe you need to spend some time studying a map before you write about an area of the world of which you are obviously ignorant.

When is 60 Minutes going to investigate Krakauer's behavior on Everest? Now THERE's a credibility problem.

Greg Mortenson is trying to do good. Krakauer? not so much....

For all the naysayers just keep this in mind. When government funded charities/organizations (like USAID) spend MILLIONS of dollars to build ONE school in Afghanistan and CAI does it for a fraction of that a few villages away and without one PENNY of government money that tends to make some powerful enemies.

Just like Mother Teresa, you can't just give someone a free pass because they do good things. If no one had bothered to expose all of her misdoings (misspending, proselytizing, baptizing dying Hindus, giving Calcutta a bad name, campaigning against abortion and contraception, preaching "acceptance of poverty" instead of social reform, etc.), we would have an inaccurate picture of her and the effect of her work. This is never a good way to operate.

In my opinion, Greg Mortenson is the Face of America on its best day. His work is our best hope for peace in a very troubled world. We should support him and the wonderful work he is doing.

Tony Mussari, Sr.
The Face of America Project

I saw the problem when, by p. 29, Mortenson declared Haji Ali's home was HIS (Mortenson's) "base" of operations. Wow. Kind of an old story, recycled for the 21st century.

I hope this is not true--that's depressing. The book was so inspiring. Even if he used artistic license to create the story, why didn't he just say so, because the work he has done is still admirable. Cutting corners never works. The truth will out.

I listened to an interview with him on some obscure podcast, and he was the most condescending weasel -- but that's not rare, even in people doing supposed "non-profits." He's obsessed with the notion of tea over there as many people are, and with blaming the United States (as we say now, were we used to use the name of the president at the time) in creating the Taliban and all the ills of the world.

I was at least thinking, well, he's doing some good, anyway, despite his terrible attitude and rudeness.

Now I find out he's yet another author lying to sell books for their self-professed evil of "profit" and "making money."

When someone doesn't comment, like Stephen Ambrose's family went mum after his lies about Ike were exposed, it has to close the case that they're guilty.

Major Nicholson, you're right about the costs, but I found this funny: "I will give him benefit of the doubt and perhaps remain suspicious until these allegations are refuted or disproved." Refuted or disproved are both his side. So, you'll remain suspicous -- which means believing him -- until the charges are somehow proven wrong? What if they're proven correct?

And, Sophie, as for using Pakistan and Afghanistan interchangeably, maybe it "appears" that way to you, but the author of the piece is not the subject. Fine, hold them to account and be skeptical, but be skeptical of the book is the point. It's one of the most tired and silly parries on the Internet to go after small mistakes, typos and errors that are not at all germane to the point at hand.

Next, you'll be bringing up Hitler and saying President Obama was born in Notheristan.

Three Cups of Baloney!

Mortensen has done more for the cause of peace in two Muslim countries than all the efforts of the U.S. government and the military. WOMEN'S EDUCAION (and the challenges in Third World countries) is a cause that needs attention. I, for one, enjoyed the two books, and found them inspiring enough to get involved in international education, teaching in Asia. My students, from predominantly Muslim Middle East and North African were from the wealthier middle classes. Mortensen gets to the remote people at the end of the road. If he embellished his story for drama, I don't care.

Aid agencies working abroad often pay phenomenally high salaries to their support and administrative staff at home and in the field. This is the norm. At least Mortensen's Central Asia Institute employed indigenous tribal people and created jobs and professional opportunities for girls who attended their schools..

I was told about this book and was going to read it but now I will wait till the whole story comes out. I remember JFK's book about the ugly American. He made no claim to work like Mortinsen but he was saved and kept alive by the local people after his PT boat was sunk. One thing most will agree on is that the people in A-stan need help coming out of the stone age.

I was waiting for such alligations agaisnt Dr.Morteson.When ever Pakistan's name comes up no one can tolerate and good happening in this country.Why should sixty minute go to the extent of checking on," Three Cups of Tea." There is nothing wrong with him spending more money in United States,this exactly happens with all Aid money for Pakistan .Most of the Aid moeny returns back to United States.

My initial reaction to the title of this was "wow, I really hope it's not true." While reading the article, I felt let down but I also wondered how credible the sources who refuted his story are.

I also agree w/ one of the above comments that embellishing a story for artistic purposes is one thing. But to embellish about how everything started or to fake a kidnapping crosses the line for me. Especially since he's been traveling the country talking about the book & his charity: You'd think he'd come clean & say there was some fabrication.

I'm personally OK w/ the fact that his charity spent more money in the U.S. if indeed the money spent was transparent (evidence he stayed in humble hotels; low overhead cost; etc.)

Even though I read Three Cups in a couple of sittings b/c I was engrossed in the story, I did keep thinking it all seemed so much like a movie script: Drama, suspense, romance, exotic appeal.

Can't wait to see the 60min interview b/c I'm on the fence about something I really cared about.

Mortenson has done a great deal of good in Central Asia, and built up a great deal of credibility in the region and here in the United States. Facts and sources are unclear in this article. I will wait on Mr. Mortenson himself to speak to these vague concerns.

Thank goodness for "60 Minutes" and their wonderful expose on Greg Mortenson. Mr. Morgenson tricked a lot of people into reading his book and donating to his cause, and he should be punished for his misdeads. The guy is a marketing genius with a very creative imagination. How embarrassed his publisher and supporters must feel. The US government even used him as a consultant and expert. Another hero bites the dust. How sad.

Sophie said:
You seem to use "Afghanistan" and "Pakistan" interchangeably in your article. You wrote "Significantly, Mortenson's origin story -- of being saved by a remote village in Afghanistan and promising to build a school for them -- appears to be a fabrication." The origin story in Three Cups of Tea is about a remote village in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

It's difficult to take any of this seriously when you don't know what country you're talking about.
Perhaps, Sophie you should actually look at the picture in this article of the cover of "Stones into Schools," which clearly states:
"Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace Through Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan"

It's difficult to take Sophie seriously when you don't know what country you're talking about.

For those who still stick by Greg Mortenson, I have to ask you a simple question…why? Yes, he may have built some schools, but the point is that he greatly exaggerated the whole thing, and that is putting it nicely. To me, the most upsetting part was the lie about being kidnapped by Taliban fighters when really those men where there to protect him. Some of those men had no idea that they were being shown to the rest of the world as kidnappers and the fact that Greg claimed them to be is just downright disgusting. How is that ‘changing the world for the better good?’ I don’t care if he did it to earn more money for his cause, it is no reason to lie and anyone who says otherwise should really take a good look at themselves.

@Sophie Should Learn to Read:

I would just like to note that Sophie's comment is still justified. While the books (especially "Stones into Schools") do discuss building schools in BOTH Pakistan and Afghanistan, Sophie's comment is in relation to the beginning of CAI. The original "remote village" Mortenson claims to have been saved by is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan as stated in the article-- I believe that is what Sophie is referring to. It was a few years later that CAI's operations were expanded into Afghanistan.

So, according to your logic, "Sophie Should Learn to Read" should learn to read.

You might want to corrrect this typo in the article, it is reading (at 3:04 am pacific time):

"And according to "60 Minutes," Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute, has spent more money in the the U.S. talking about education in Pakistan and Afghanistan than actually building and supporting schools there. The television program talks to charity waltchdog group that has concerns about the financial management of the group."

CORRECTION: "waltchdog" should not have an "l" in it. It should be "watchdog."

Look at the book's cover. It's a poorly Photoshopped combination of two images, both of which could have been taken anywhere in the world...

So many Americans contributed to CAI: their generosity is
unassailable and it is they who touch my heart.

I heard Greg speak, bought his book, and admire his work. I also gained the immediate impression that although he is deeply dedicated to this cause, he is not a very organized or "regular" person, and might have a lot of trouble with rules and keeping track of receipts. But here's the thing, people. Did he lie? If so, not admirable. Are his detractors lying? Even worse. If Greg lied, he did so to make his story more compelling and attract support for a cause that desperately needs support. If his detractors are lying, they are doing so to discredit one man and one charity. Why? Personal axes to grind? Self promotion? Jealousy? Petty politics? Remember "Swift Boat veterans" who discredited John Kerry, only later were found never to have served with him at all? Yet their "testimony" sank his presidential bid. Don't believe everything you hear, even if "60 Minutes" runs the story. Greg might well have refused to speak to them because he felt betrayed by a former climbing buddy (a bond you cannot understand if you have not experienced it), attacked, and overwhelmed. INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY, PEOPLE. It's the American way. Trial by news story is not justice. And even if he is the lying weasel some people assert -- he has still built schools for girls and made some positive bridges between Afghanistan and Pakistan, at less cost (and no loss of human life!!!) than the U.S. government in its multi-billion dollar exercises in those countries. I do not endorse fraud; but I put my money on Greg doing more good in those countries than any other charity I have heard of yet.

After seeing the story it appears that is worse than it was made out to be last week. Not only did he lie about the major events but some of the schools they're lauding don't exist and he's been using the charity as his own ATM. His whole bit about the natives having a different concept of time is laughable.

To the people saying so what, so he's lying a bit here and there. When you do that in association with fundraising it's called fraud. You're taking people's money on false pretenses. Not only that but apparently he's using to for himself.

I'm sure he's done good work, but that's not the point, so have thousands of other people who haven't lied about their background, lied about their organization's accomplishments, misappropriated funds for themselves, and or indulged in such self-promotion.

You would have thought with all the schools Greg Mortensen has built there wouldn't even be any Taliban anymore!

Having read (and believed) both books, I'm embarrased to have been taken in by the fictitious yarns Mortenson wove. However, I am more concerned about the children in those countries, denied an education. The locals who were also lied to (and who now distrust Americans even more, I am sure), and the children and adults in America who donated money in good faith, hoping to make a better world. (I was given both books as gifts, and now consider them "fiction").
Finally, I am greatly concerned that he jeopardized the lives and health of American men and women who serve in the military. If he provided false information to military leaders, and that information led to deaths or injuries, "Dr. Greg" should be treated as a military criminal. And will the books' publishers be held partially responsible for their failure to verify the quality of what they published, at great profit to their own company? Hopefully, more answers are to follow...and perhaps stiff punishment for these terrible acts. How shameful.

I'm kind of torn on this whole controversy. On one hand, I don't think that all the good work done in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be overshadowed by some embellishment by Mortenson and his writing partner. For me, wandering into the village after failing to summit K2 wasn't the most powerful part of the story. Rather it was his determination to open his schools after so many obstacles were put in the way. On the other hand, the claims about misuse of funds and a lack of actual schools being built is extremely problematic for me. Where is our (I donated to CAI shortly after reading the book) money really going?

Major Nicholson,

Dr. Greg Mortenson should have posted all that on the website AND stated an FAQ, so people would know this ahead of time.

"Q. Why do you spend more money on promotion than on building schools?

A. blah blah blah"

Why does everyone think everything they read is true.People lie thats the truth. If you dont beleive me your probably right.

Let's all remember that these are ALLEGATIONS--nothing has been proven. Krakauer weaves just as compelling a story as any, and he obviously thrives on controversy. Meanwhile, Greg Mortenson has worked tirelessly to provide education for impoverished kids and continues to do so. This is a person to look up to and learn from, not to condemn.

According to Krakauer, Mortenson said in 'Tea' that he visited Mother Theresa in 2000. Too bad she had been dead since 1997. Shouldn't the editors have caught that? It just throws the entire book into question.

If it was just fabrication I think the public would be forgiving, but misleading donors and using a charity as a private ATM? Kids were supposedly breaking their piggy banks for CAI.


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