TODAY   |  January 21, 2014

Greg Mortenson: ‘I let a lot of people down’

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.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> the book "three cups of tea" was released in 2007 , it spent four years on the nonfiction best sellers list and praised for the insight into afghanistan. greg mortenson was nominated for the nobel peace prize twice. but then in 2011 , it all came to a crashing halt. and now mortenson is speaking to nbc news special correspondent tom brokaw .

>> reporter: this is a story of worldwide fame and adulation and a steep fall from the pinnacle of celebrity. it's the story of greg mortenson , the mountaineer who produced "three cups of tea." it was required reading for many college freshmen, but then a former supporter got suspicion of mortenson 's role. he accused him of not only fabricating stories but also of mishandling his foundation's money to support his book promotion instead of putting that money into building schools.

>> you have said that you made mistakes, there were lots of questions about accounting that go well beyond just mistakes.

>> i always have operated from my heart. and i really didn't factor in the very important things of accountability, transparency.

>> we found there are serious questions.

>> reporter: "60 minutes" did a story and mortenson 's life went into a tail spin . he was forced off the board, and while an investigation found no criminal wrong doing, mortenson was ordered to pay back $ 1 million and questions remain what is true in the popular book.

>> what i regret is we were under tremendous pressure to bring 1 million words down to 3,000 words.

>> no alarms went off in your mind? didn't you think, that's not exactly how it happened?

>> i stand by the stories. the stories happened.

>> not always in the sequence?

>> not in the sequence or the timing.

>> you had a book at the top of the best seller list. paying to get you to places but not sharing in the royalties of it all. why there wasn't at some point in your mind an alarm that went off and said, you know, this just isn't right in some way.

>> there were alarms, tom. i was -- i didn't listen to them.

>> have you gone back to the people who came to you at some point and said, hey, look, we've got problems here and you really effect gave them the back of your hand and not interested in what their judgments were.

>> yes, i've talked to people who were very adamant that i make changes, i've apologized to them, i'd also like to apologize to everybody. i let a lot of people down.

>> i think you know i know everyone on both sides of this fight. i know your defenders in montana and john who raised the first accusations and it got bitter for a while. and i'd like to thank them. because had they not brought these issues up, we could've gotten into more serious problems.

>> mortenson acknowledges the effort to clean up his organization on the ground remains a work in progress .

>> what do you say to a college freshman in this country who has been assigned your book and reads other accounts that there were real questions about stories that simply didn't happen.

>> in "three cups of tea," the first chapter, the first word is failure. i failed in many ways and it's an important lesson. i'm going to try as hard as i can never to make the same mistakes again.

>> and tom brokaw 's here with us in the studio. couple of things, tom, any response from john?

>> no, i did say i hadn't heard back from john yet. he still has strong feelings about the organization, especially on the ground over there and say they are doing an audit. when greg thanks them for their intervention, it had to do with his heart condition , he probably would've died if he kept his original schedule.

>> you talk about the organization on the ground, money is crucial to keep it going. did the funds dry up after the scandal? and is the money returning in some way?

>> no, their donations are off about 80%, that's to be expected. it played big across the country. and they still have some proving up to do so to speak. we knew him, i worked a lot in that part of the world, thought it was important. john gave $17,000, he was very upset with what was going on. something else here, viking, the publisher has not yet released their account of these described inaccuracies. and i think the publisher has an obligation to the readers and others to come clean and say here's where we were right and wrong.

>> tom, thanks for bringing this to us. we appreciate it.