Greg Mortenson Speaks
The embattled director of the Central Asia Institute responds to allegations of financial mismanagement and that he fabricated stories in his bestselling book Three Cups of Tea.
Brace yourself for a new Central Asian conflict involving powerful American forces, and count on this one to last a while. The combatants: 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer, who have squared off against Greg Mortenson, the best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools and the charismatic leader of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), the Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit that raises millions to build schools in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In a report that aired Sunday night April 17, 2011, on 60 Minutes, and in a separate investigative piece forthcoming from Krakauer, Mortenson is under heavy attack over everything from the veracity of his nonfiction memoirs—particularly a famous story in Three Cups of Tea recounting his first visit to Korphe, a mountain village in Pakistan—to the financial management of CAI. Assessing the possible damage, Time’s Nick Carbone wrote, “Looks like Mortenson’s writing has the potential to be shattered into a million little pieces.”
Mortenson himself kept a low profile over the weekend, on the mend from a heart condition that has left him with chest pains and breathing difficulties. He spoke only to his local newspaper, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and to Outside. In an exclusive series of interviews with editorial director Alex Heard, Mortenson admitted to making mistakes both as a writer and nonprofit manager, but he made it clear that he intends to fight against the most serious allegations and can count on extensive support.
Watch Outside’s Facebook page and Twitter feed (@outsidemagazine) for further updates. To see previous coverage of Greg Mortenson and CAI, check out Kevin Fedarko’s December 2008 profile, “No Bachcheh Left Behind,” and Mark Jenkins’s December 2001 column, “Seismic Shift.”
Greg, the 60 Minutes segment claimed that there are major fabrications in Three Cups of Tea. Are there factual errors in the book, and if so, how did they get there?
To answer that, it’s important to have some background. I started writing Three Cups of Tea in 2002, doing six chapters myself. I went to New York to four publishers and they all said the same thing: The story’s great but the writing sucks. [Laughs.]
That fall, Kevin Fedarko came over to Pakistan to do a story for Outside about the Siachen Glacier war—we arranged all the logistics to get him to the front lines of the India-Pakistan war zone—and on the way out he came to Korphe with me, where he witnessed a scene in which a woman named Jahan came up, walked into a circle of elders I was sitting with, and said, “I’m ready to go to medical training. You promised me you’d help, so here’s my proposal.”
After that trip, Kevin wrote a Parade magazine article about me in 2003, and the Siachen story and Parade put us on the map. Then Lee Kravitz, who was the editor of Parade, called me and said, I’ve got a book writer for you. This was David Oliver Relin, who co-authored Three Cups of Tea with me and has joint copyright.
That’s where some of the issues are. It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything.
David insisted on writing the book in third person, which is really awkward. The publisher said, Greg, you’re too understated, so this needs to be in the third person. My wife, Tara, also told me that if I wrote a book, it would be a pamphlet.
What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions, and … I don’t know, what that’s called?
Yeah. So, rather than me going two or three times to one place, he would synthesize it into one trip. I would squawk about it and be told that it would all work out.
This was my first book. I’m an introverted guy, running ragged for months on end, and in those days I was overseas all the time, and also trying to raise money. My regret—what I wish I would have done—is that I should have taken off several months and really focused on the book. But I was trying to raise a family, be gone most of the year, and work 16- to 20-hour days without stopping.
So you’re saying you were new to the process, busy, and you were naive about how nonfiction is written. And they were sometimes saying, “Let’s tell it this way, it’s better”?
Yes, definitely. I was also overseas a lot, in Afghanistan—we had been really launching there since 2000. When I was there, David would read the manuscript to me over the phone, and so forth.
When the book came out, did you read parts of your own story that made you say, “Hey, I don’t think this is accurate”?
Yeah. Especially in regards to the timing. Like, you know, you went there three times, twice you went there in the fall, so let’s just make it one fall trip. At the end of the book, I took three trips up to northern Afghanistan, over about a year and a half. Those were synthesized into one trip.
Those are general things. But 60 Minutes and Krakauer have challenged the facts of a major episode at the start of Three Cups of Tea, when you come down from your attempted climb of K2 in 1993 and wander, after several days, into the village of Korphe. Their assertion is that you didn’t go to that village at all until a year later, in 1994. Is their reporting wrong? Did the events happen as you say they did?
What they said is inaccurate.
Is there any way for you to prove that?
I have called our managers in Pakistan and the area where this all takes place. They’re talking to dozens of people in the places where these scenes occurred. They will ask them to recall and read to them from the book. Last night [Saturday, April 16th], one of our staff talked with two people from Korphe and they re-affirmed that I was Korphe in 1993, two years before we built a bridge there.
Although this is irrelevant in American culture, it’s worth noting that in the Balti language of northeast Pakistan, there is little or no emphasis on tenses, and “now” can mean a few minutes, weeks, or even a whole season. The Balti find westerners’ emphasis on time confusing.
But you stand by the Korphe story as it was written?
Well, there are discrepancies that, again, have to do with compression of events.
Walk us through your best recollection of what happened, and then let’s compare that with what’s in the book.
I left K2 in early September of 1993 with my friend and climbing-team member Scott Darsney, who was apparently a source for the 60 Minutes claim about my first visit to Korphe. We left together. We had participated in a couple of high-altitude rescues on K2, involving our French teammate, Etienne Fine. I was not feeling well, really emaciated and exhausted. I was with Scott, and we had three porters: Ali, Mouzafer, and Yakoub. We walked from there to Concordia, a spot where three main glaciers come together, including the Baltoro Glacier. Then we slept a night at Gore, a flat camp on the moraine of the glacier.
Then, over the next five or six days, we kept moving and hitting other camps. About two hours before a place called Urdukas, I got veered to the south and got lost on the glacier. About 10 that night, I just lay down on the glacier, with a Pakistani army blanket I draped over my shoulders, a PowerBar, and a jug of water.
Next morning, I found the trail again and heard some donkeys—they have these big bells on their necks. I heard a guy yelling. It was Mouzafer. He saw me and I remember him yelling, “Allah Akbar!” He was crying and distraught, he was so worried because I’d been lost.
We went to another camp, to the east, where we met Scott and Yakoub and Ali. Scott was like, Where have you been? He said we need to stick together more. I said, Hey, you guys keep bolting down the trail and I can’t keep up. At that point, I think I weighed around 168. Usually I weighed 220 or 210.
Next day we went to Paiyu, a huge staging ground at the terminus of the Baltoro Glacier. That took me 12 hours. From Paiyu we went to the terminus of the Biafo Glacier, and there’s an Army camp there. That’s probably a four-hour walk, but it took me 10 or 12 hours. We spent a night at the snout of the Biafo Glacier.
The next morning I was so weak that I pretty much ditched everything I had. We started walking at around 10 or 11, I got left behind as usual, and I was alone when I hit a fork in the road. When you’re coming out from there, there’s a fork in the trail about two hours before Askole, a village where expeditions park their jeeps when they hit the trailhead. If you go north, to the left—which I did—it goes to Korphe. The main trail goes right, or to the south, heading to Askole. I made a wrong turn there. So I ended up in Korphe. I was met there by Hajj Ali, the village chief.
I got to Korphe, I would say, early afternoon. And this is my best memory: I wandered into the village. There were graves before the village, some kids met me, and we went up to the house of Hajj Ali. I remember collapsing by the inner hearth of his house. I thought I was in Askole, but they said, No, you’re in Korphe.
I was there a few hours, probably two or three hours, had tea, and I said, I gotta go to Askole. They took me to a cable-pulley bridge over the Braldu River. And I can’t remember now, but Mouzafer either came over to me or I went over to him, but that’s where we met. Later, we rejoined Scott and the others and we drove to Skardu.
From that account, I take it you’re categorically denying that you didn’t set foot in Korphe until a year later?
Still, there are clear discrepancies between that version and what’s in Three Cups of Tea. In the book, you’re described as being in Korphe overnight, but now you think you were really there only a few hours. In the book, it says you went back to Korphe as soon as you could, and it’s during this second trip that you and Hajj Ali talk about you building a school there someday. When did that actually happen?
The second scene in Korphe about building a school happened in September 1994, a year later.
Then there was quite a bit of literary compression going on. You entered the village in September 1993, but you went back a year later, not a few days later, and talked about the school?
The 60 Minutes report also asserted that the story about you being kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban—also in Three Cups of Tea—was distorted quite a bit. They took a photo that you published of your alleged captors in Stones Into Schools and they tracked some of them down. The men they found denied that they kidnapped you, saying they’d treated you like a guest. How do you respond?
This was in July of 1996, or early August, I’ll have to check. At Korphe at that time, they were really making progress with their school. Hajj Ali said to me: If you really want to get this school built, you need to be quiet and let us do the work. So I went to Waziristan. That’s in what’s called the Northwest Frontier Province, the tribal areas, and I’ve really always been fascinated with the people of that region.
Anyway, that whole story is pretty much accurate. I was detained during my time there. My passport was taken from me, my money was taken from me, and when I was moved a blanket was put over my head. Initially, the first two days, I got really depressed because I didn’t know what exactly was going on. I didn’t try to run away or anything, but I did try to be very kind and befriend the people.
When did they let you go and why?
I believe I spent seven nights and eight days there, but would have to check notes, since this happened 15 years ago. After about six days, I told them my wife was seven months pregnant and I really needed to get home for the birth of my child, and that really did it. They didn’t harm or beat me, and I sometimes wonder if they were trying to protect me, but there’s no doubt I was detained. At the end, they put me in a car and took me to Jamrud Fort, which is in Peshawar. There’s a huge bus station there.
Now, as to whether they were Taliban or not? All I know is that I was in the area where the Taliban had originated. They didn’t call themselves “Taliban,” and maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. But I was definitely detained against my will.
Just to clarify, if I look at that story right now in Three Cups of Tea, would you say that what’s in there about that incident is accurate?
Yeah. It’s accurate as to what transpired. I wasn’t allowed to leave, and I was kept in a room, very small, with one window and a burlap sack and a bed in it. I always had one or two armed guards with me, smoking a lot of hashish.
Why didn’t you talk to Jon Krakauer and Steve Kroft during their investigations?
Krakauer wouldn’t identify who he was writing for. On April 13th, he sent me this email saying, I’ve been trying through a mutual friend to get in touch with you, you’ve avoided me, never gotten back, and now I need to meet you by Saturday or Sunday, because we have a story coming out and it’s really important that I talk to you.
Really? You’re certain that the first time you heard from Krakauer about a story, at all, was April 13th?
Yes. And I emailed back and I said, Well, Jon, thanks. I had never heard from you, I did not know you were working on a story. I don’t even know what it’s about. I might be able to meet with you on Saturday, but I’m on a tight schedule and I’ve had a problem with my heart and oxygen levels.
I also said that, before we discuss anything, I need to know who you’re working with, which magazine, and I also need to know if you’re in any collaboration with 60 Minutes. I was worried about hidden audio, for one thing. But once I realized how deep and dirty this whole thing was, I realized I couldn’t trust him enough to meet him in the middle of a field without any clothes on.
What about 60 Minutes. How did they approach you?
They did the same thing. First, my wife was called out of the blue, with them demanding to know where I was. I think on March 30th. Most professionals would call my office or publicist first and not my wife at home. She said, “He’s not home.”
The next day, Steve Kroft got a hold of my assistant, but he and I only communicated through emails. He said, I’ve sent you all these emails and you never replied. I said, Steve, I’ve never received one email from you. He said, I don’t know why you’re avoiding me. I said, Steve, what email address did you send it to? He said, Well, I need to look. I said, Here’s my email, write it down. Forward me those emails and I’ll respond. He never forwarded any emails he said he had written to me previously. We have since written out responses to the questions he sent me, and sent them back.
Didn’t Kroft and a crew show up at one of your events last week? In Atlanta?
Yes, on Thursday of last week, I was at a gathering called the Community Service Leadership Convention at a Hyatt hotel, mostly with college and high-school kids. I got done and was at a book signing with two or three hundred kids, with some adults, too.
Out of the blue, there’s a rush by Kroft and two cameramen. They got on both sides of me and I looked to my right and he said, “Steve Kroft.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, I’m Steve Kroft and I’d like to talk to you and can you give me five minutes? This was all on film, so perhaps my exact words here, from memory, are not verbatim.
He said, I’m sorry for disrupting. So I said, “Thanks!” I was totally surprised. He had a big, brown trench coat on, on a hot Atlanta day. When I see a big coat on a hot day, I think about Pakistan and I think “suicide bomber.” It took me a few seconds to realize who this guy was. I don’t watch TV, so I don’t even know what he looks like.
60 Minutes focused on financial matters, relating to the blurry lines between CAI, which is a tax-exempt nonprofit, and you, an individual who sells books and collects lecture fees at events promoted by CAI advertising. I’ve also heard from sources who have criticized the fact that you often use a charter jet when you fly around to engagements. What do you say to all that?
If you go to the Web sites for Stones Into Schools or Three Cups of Tea, I have most of my public events listed for the last five or six years. Last year I went to 140 cities, something like that, and I also traveled overseas plus trying to be home whenever I can.
When I do events, it doesn’t just mean a lecture. I go early in the morning, often talk to local schools, and then maybe I do a luncheon at a library, in the afternoon I go to a college. I’m often doing five lectures a day, plus tea with some little old ladies at the library. Then there’s some kind of dinner or reception, the lecture, a book signing, and those go on for two or three hours sometimes.
Mostly what the charters involved was having a plane and then getting on that plane at midnight or one in the morning, flying to the next city, crashing on the plane, getting on the ground, and then hitting the road again.
Donors could really care less, I guess, but I was spending more and more time away from my family, and it was really having a huge impact on my wife and kids. Using charter flights, which I only started doing in 2009, allowed me to pack in many more cities. I get about 2,400 speaking requests a year. About 400 of the ones last year were offering to pay money. So I mix them. And, since January, I have totally paid for all my own travel.
You pay all your own travel now?
Yes, since mid-January. What I was trying to do was separate myself from the organization. Not as a leader, but as far as conflicts of interest that might appear.
See, we were conscious of all this stuff before 60 Minutes. Last fall, I noticed that, although what we’re doing was extremely effective in terms of raising money and sending money overseas, a handful of people started asking questions about the amount of book purchases and advertising CAI was funding.
We have a law firm in Kansas that helps us register in states as a nonprofit, and I asked them to look into these issues at that time. This firm sent an internal memo that was somehow leaked to 60 Minutes, which just said there was a possibility that, in the event of an audit, I might be found in violation of IRS regulations regarding excess benefits. It didn’t say that was true, just that there was the possibility.
That, to me, was quite concerning. In January, I personally hired an expert non-profit law firm in Washington, D.C., to do an independent, internal analysis. I paid for this myself, and I wanted them to rip the Band-Aid off and look at everything we’re doing. Over the past four months, they’ve been doing a huge amount of research with accountants and attorneys.
And what are they telling you?
There’s pages and pages of analysis, but they determined that CAI, Three Cups of Tea, and Greg Mortenson are pretty much all part of each other. As much as it would be great to separate everything, we’re all intricately woven. They said CAI needs me, and I’m really the only reason CAI can exist right now.
Have they recommended ways you need to change?
Yes. They said, basically, we’ve done nothing wrong, but they highly recommend that there be some specific changes. Most of it has to do with separation of me and the organization. Who decides if there are to be books purchased, and advertising for those books, because it could be seen as book advertising for me. We’ll be making their recommendations public soon, and we’ll place a big priority on putting in other changes that involve more micro-management, more employees—things that I have always opposed, but I’ll do now—and having a marketing director who decides about ads and placement.
I should mention that last December we raised about $8 million, which is the highest month we’ve ever had in our history. In January, when I commissioned this firm in D.C., I cut back our advertising by 80 or 90 percent on my own. I also cut back book purchases by 80 percent. I also took my name off the Web site, took the books off the Web, and took my schedule off the Web.
In January, February, and March of this year, our donations decreased dramatically, and we raised less than a million per month, which is less than any previous similar month in the last four years. If we had kept going in the direction we were, we could have come up to $30 million this year, but we’ll end up raising $15 million. Basically, it’s a little bit of self-destruction, but I’m doing it in the interest of a more bureaucratic organization that can go on without me in the near future.
Another charge leveled by 60 Minutes is that, according to 2009 tax records, only 41 percent of the money CAI spent actually went to schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is that right?
Yes, but as our board of directors replied to them in writing, much of the remainder was spent on CAI’s other charitable programs, which include domestic outreach and education about the need for the schools. Our education mission includes both educating young people in Pakistan and Afghanistan—especially girls—and educating the American public about how promoting education in these countries contributes to peace. CAI has been setting aside funds, now totaling over $20 million, that will be restricted to provide scholarships, teacher training, and maintain the schools and their programs for years to come.
The reports also raised questions about CAI schools that may have been built by some other organization—or don’t exist at all. How do you respond?
Much of their story focuses on the region of Baltistan, in northern Pakistan, which is where we’ve worked the longest. In 1995, I hired a man to help get schools going, and he was just an amazing, incredible manager. We like to encourage local and community control in these projects, and very quickly I let him do pretty much everything, setting up almost everything we had in that area, around 40 schools, until three years ago.
What happened three years ago?
In Africa and Asia, there’s something called a confidence trick. Have you heard the term? The first two, three, four years, you do well and you’re reliable and accountable. Then you try some grafting and see what the response is. Maybe it’s nothing, or it might be hard. Then you put in the real whammy and take people to the cleaners.
What this man did to me was like the ultimate confidence trick. It took him about 13 years. One thing he did, for example, was double-dipping. We have a school called Astana, which is near Skardu. When we backed that one, he submitted proposals, we looked, everything looked great, the community was involved, and that school was built.
Well, I went there once with him, and there was a European Union signboard on the front. Then he quickly flipped it around, and on the back was another signboard: the Aga Khan Foundation. Then he went behind and, aha, here’s the Central Asia Institute signboard. I believed in him and trusted him, but there were things like that going on.
Are there any schools listed on CAI’s Web site that you now think don’t exist?
I believe there’s maybe one, which is in the Gultori Valley. Gultori is in the line of control in the war zone between India and Pakistan. This former manager told me in 1999 that Pakistan’s army definitely wanted schools in the war zone. I can’t even go there, it’s prohibited. But he said he would get a couple of schools going there, back in ’99. But I don’t know if those were ever built.
You’re about to go through an intense and unpleasant period of scrutiny. Some people will believe you easily, some people won’t believe you at all. What do you say to the millions of people who will wind up in the middle: unsure of what to think, and unsure about whether they can continue to believe in you and the whole CAI mission?
First of all, I am humbled and honored to have been supported by so many people on an amazing journey to help initiate community-based schools in some of the most difficult regions of the world to work in. I deeply regret it if I have offended, hurt, or harmed anyone in the process, and I am fully responsible. We’ve already been working very hard to bring changes to the way we work. I’ve also said I am not a good manager, and I ask people to remember that the first chapter in Three Cups of Tea is called “Failure,” which I believe one must do many times in order to succeed.
However, I also would like to tell those millions of people that regardless of what happens to me or my credibility, our work and mission to serve the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan will go on, and we have most of the pieces in place already. I long for a year of rest after almost 18 years in a row, in order to recuperate and rejuvenate and be reunited with my family. And as soon as the pieces are in place, that will happen. The great joy for me last week was to be diagnosed with a hole in my heart wall that has caused blood to shunt and keep my oxygen level low. I’ve been suffering with hypoxia for 18 months, and it’s been like operating at K2 base camp nonstop. In a few days, I will have a surgical procedure on my heart to fix the hole, and I’ll be like new again. This whole experience has taught me to be even more humble, and to slow down and delegate.
The way I look at it, there’s a media court, there’s a legal court, an IRS court, and there’s an ethical court. In the media court, it’s like you’re being judged—and we were given little time to prepare and no “discovery.” In my case, an 11th-hour attack against me worked well. Whatever happens, this is a tremendous learning experience.
But we’re in this for the long haul, and what I’d ask supporters of CAI to remember is that we’re still completely committed to what really matters: building schools for kids in Afghanistan and Pakistan.