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'Three Cups' author Greg Mortenson: 'I let a lot of people down'

Jan. 21, 2014 at 8:24 AM ET

Video: The once-acclaimed author of “Three Cups of Tea,” the 2007 book that provided insight into Afghanistan, fell into controversy amid allegations of fabrication and mishandling of nonprofit funds. Mortenson sits down with NBC’s Tom Brokaw.

Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” said Tuesday he owes a debt of gratitude to the people who first raised allegations that he mishandled money from the charity he created and featured in his best-selling memoir.

“In maybe a strange, ironic way, I’d like to thank CBS and Jon Krakauer because, had they not brought these issues up, we could have gotten into more serious problems,” Mortenson said in an exclusive interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw on TODAY. 

Krakauer, author of “Into Thin Air” and other books, alleged that Mortenson misspent funds he used from a charity he helped create to help poor children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. CBS investigated those claims in a 2011 “60 Minutes” report that also looked into charges that Mortenson made up key parts of his memoir.

“I stand by the stories. The stories happened, but … not in the sequence or the timing,” Mortenson told Brokaw.

“What I regret is that we were under tremendous pressure to bring about a million words down to 300,000 words.”

Mortenson's 2006 book "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time" chronicled his failed attempt to climb K2, the world's second-tallest mountain, and the circumstances that led him to create schools for poor children in remote villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He followed it with another best-seller in 2009. His work ultimately led to Nobel Peace Prize nominations in 2009 and 2010.

An investigation by Montana’s attorney general, however, ultimately ordered Mortenson to pay $1 million back to Central Asia Institute, the nonprofit he co-founded, and to step down from its board.

“I always have operated from my heart. I'm not a really head person. And I really didn't factor in the very important things of accountability, transparency,” Mortenson told Brokaw.

Today, he admits he failed to heed warning signs that led to his downfall.

“There were alarms, Tom. I didn't listen to them,” he said.

Mortenson said he’s spent a lot of time owning up to his mistakes.

“Yes, I've talked to people who were very adamant that I make changes. I have apologized to them,” he said. “I'd also like to apologize to everybody. I let a lot of people down.”

But Mortenson said his cleanup effort remains a work in progress.

"In 'Three Cups of Tea,' the first chapter, the first word is 'failure.' I failed in many ways, and it's an important lesson," he said. "I'm going to try as hard as i can never to make the same mistakes again." 

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