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‘Three Cups of Tea’ inaccurate? Author speaks out

Author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson — once praised by the Pentagon for his charitable works in Pakistan — is firing back after a “60 Minutes” investigation alleging that his inspirational best-seller "Three Cups of Tea" is filled with inaccuracies.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson — once praised by the Pentagon for his charitable works in Pakistan — is firing back after a "60 Minutes" investigation alleging that his inspirational multimillion seller "Three Cups of Tea" is filled with inaccuracies and that his charitable organization has taken credit for building schools that don't exist.

"I hope these allegations and attacks, the people doing these things, know this could be devastating for tens of thousands of girls, for the sake of Nielsen ratings and Emmys," Mortenson told his hometown newspaper, the Chronicle of Bozeman, Montana, in a phone interview Friday.

In what so far has been his only direct contact with the media since the details of the “60 Minutes” report appeared, Mortenson insisted to the newspaper that he had been ambushed by the CBS broadcast and not given a chance to defend himself.He told the newspaper that he had spent 18 years doing charitable work, that “60 Minutes” had spent months probing him, but didn’t contact him until “the 11th hour” — March 30 — to give him a chance to respond.

“This could be devastating," he told the newspaper. "It's very difficult when you're being stalked, bullied and harassed."

Viking, the book's publisher, told The New York Times in a statement Monday that in the wake of the report, it will review the book's contents with Mortenson. Disputed assertions
The report, which aired Sunday night, cited "Into the Wild" author Jon Krakauer as among the doubters of Mortenson's story of being lost while mountain-climbing in rural Pakistan in 1993 and stumbling upon the village of Korphe, where the kindness of local residents inspired him to build a school. The "60 Minutes" story drew upon observations from the porters who joined Mortenson on his mountain trip in Pakistan and dispute his being lost. They say he only visited Korphe a year later.

The report also cast doubt on Mortenson’s assertion in his book that he was kidnapped by pro-Taliban fighters. “60 Minutes” reported that it had tracked down the men who appeared in a picture with Mortenson and that they had denied abducting him or being members of the Taliban. One man charged the writer's version was "totally false," a tale told "to sell his book."

Mortenson told the newspaper that the men had “detained” him for eight days and kept his money and his passport. He insisted that at the time, “I thought it best to befriend the people detaining me."But the most damaging allegations in the CBS report involve the charitable work done by Mortenson and CAI.The "60 Minutes" report alleges that numerous schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan that Mortenson's Central Asia Institute is said to have established either don't exist or were built by others. According to the CAI's website, the institute has "successfully established over 170 schools" and helped educate over 68,000 students, with an emphasis on girls' education." Mortenson provided the newspaper with a letter, written by Kroft and dated last Wednesday, in which the correspondent alleges that “a number of people” had questioned whether there was "inadequate separation" between the charity's finances and Mortenson's personal financial interests.

“The letter cited a warning from CAI's own attorneys last December and January that if audited by the IRS, Mortenson would likely be found in violation of rules against gaining 'excess benefits' from the charity,” the Chronicle reported. It also questioned why “only 41 percent of the money it raised actually went to pay for schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and highlighted whether CAI spent “millions to advertise Mortenson's best-selling books and to hire charter jets to take him to $30,000 speaking engagements around the country, yet it received almost none of the money from his speeches and books.”

Mortenson told the newspaper that he receives “50 or 60 cents” royalty on each book, that he has donated $100,000 of his own money to the organization, and that the percentage of its revenues that CAI spends on schools is higher than “60 minutes” reported and that a portion of that money has been set aside as a “nest egg” to guarantee that the charity remains viable “if something happens to me.”

The newspaper also quoted its own assistant managing editor, Karin Ronnow, who has written extensively about Mortenson and CA, and has also contracted with CAI to produce its annual "Journey of Hope" publication, which it sends out worldwide. She defended Mortenson, arguing that the accusations in the “60 Minutes” report do not match her observations.

"He sees a huge need and he is always pushing forward to try and meet that need," said Ronnow, who according to the paper did not participate in the writing or editing of the Chronicle story. Every time she sees Mortenson in Pakistan, she said, "someone else is waiting there to say, ‘Can you help us? Can you help our children?' ”Standing by his story
In a statement published Friday on CAI’s website, Mortenson defended the book he co-authored with David Oliver Relinhis, and his humanitarian work. "Afghanistan and Pakistan are fascinating, inspiring countries, full of wonderful people. They are also complex places, torn by conflicting loyalties, and some who do not want our mission of educating girls to succeed," Mortenson 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. I continue to be heartened by the many messages of support I receive from our local partners in cities and villages across Afghanistan and Pakistan, who are determined not to let unjustified attacks stop the important work being done to create a better future for their children."

He did, however, concede that some elements of the tale he told in his book may have been trimmed to fit the narrative. “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 … There were many people involved in the story and also those who produced the manuscript. What was done was to simplify the sequence of events for the purposes of telling what was, at times, a complicated story.""Three Cups of Tea" was released by Penguin in 2006. Spokeswoman Carolyn Coleburn declined comment, saying the publisher had not seen the "60 Minutes" story.The book sold moderately in hardcover, but was a word-of-mouth hit as a paperback and became an international sensation, selling more than 3 million copies. Mortenson has received numerous honors, including the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan), a civilian award rarely given to foreigners.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.