Three Cups of… What?

By Adil James, TMO

GregMortensonGreg Mortenson is apparently a big liar. The founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and writer of the bestseller Three Cups of Tea, one-time mountaineer and world traveler, is in addition a profligate cheat.  60 Minutes did a story this past Sunday on Mr. Mortenson, exposing some of the more expansive exaggerations of which he is guilty. 

Mortenson is famous for promoting the education of Afghan and Pakistani girls despite the region’s reputation for being absolutely religiously charged against the education of girls.

The 60 Minutes expose showed that, first of all, the underlying story which has become the engine for his not-for-profit, for his books, and for his own captivating attraction to the American public eye—is a lie.  Mortenson claims to have come into a village after being separated from a climbing troupe—a village which nursed him back to life and then accepted his intervention in the form of building a school house for the young girls of the village. 

In fact the village of Khorfe that Mortenson mentions is one that he did not hear about until a year after the climbing trip—a trip from which he was never separated and which passed uneventfully.  “A beautiful story… and a lie,” explained interviewee Jon Krakauer, himself a mountaineer and the author of Into Thin Air (a first-hand account of the 1997 Mount Everest disaster).

The other harrowing story that forms the nucleus of his aura of magical transcendence is that of being captured by Taliban and then released after asking for a copy of Qur`an.  The evidence for this story was Mortenson’s picture among about a dozen bearded Afghan men with Kalashnikov rifles.  The truth of this story, however, is apparently that Mr. Mortenson travelled with some friends who happened to have beards and Kalashnikovs (like the other 95% of men in the region), with whom he stayed by choice and not compulsion.  60 Minutes interviewed one of those men, a prominent Pakistani journalist who explained that in fact the other people in the picture were his relatives and fellow travellers—the journalist said that absolutely those men were not Taliban—and also showed a picture where Mortenson held a Kalashnikov while the bearded men did not.

The 60 Minutes crew traveled to 30 of the schools supposedly built and maintained by Mortenson—half of these schools are now defunct, or were never built, or were built by someone else, or were never supported beyond a rudimentary level by Mortenson, and succeeded on their own and without his support.  The 60 Minutes segment is evidence that Mortenson filed a fraudulent IRS Form 990 for his not-for-profit, which lists these problematic or nonexistent schools as recipients of aid. 

The 60 Minutes expose showed the lavish lifestyle of the author, who travels in private jets to see enthralled and adulating audiences around the United States—where he earns $30,000 per speech.  The expenses for these trips are borne by his not-for-profit.  Yet the speaking fee goes to him, and the profits from the book sales also go to him.  In fact the not-for-profit spent 1.7 million dollars in one year to fund his travel on speaking engagements and book tours, more than it spent that year to build or fund schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mortenson claims outlandish conversations with an individual, who Mortenson claims promised to send all his yaks with provisions to help build a school—conversations that 60 Minutes interviewees described as completely out of character for that individual.  60 Minutes showed footage of the relevant school, explaining that in fact it is now defunct, a small isolated cement structure on a mountain, devoid of use.  He claims to have built multiple schools (sometimes claiming nine, sometimes eleven) in war-torn areas—interviewees explained he had built three schools there, not more.

CAI has suffered some internal rifts which the 60 Minutes report explained as being caused by Mortenson’s lavish living and abuse of his not-for-profit. 

The report contended that Mortenson used the CAI’s money as a personal ATM.  Financial analysts who analyzed the CAI books contended that there was substantial intermingling of his own funds with not-for-profit funds.  In 2002, the report explained, three of Mortenson’s board members including the treasurer quit in protest over his misuse of funds.

Mortenson does not appear to have good answers to the questions raised by the 60 Minutes story—as evidenced by his running away from 60 Minutes reporters and suddenly cancelling a speaking engagement to avoid their questions.

“This is not Bernie Madoff,” said Krakauer.  “He has done good, girls are being educated,” but Krakauer explains that this good is offset by his fraud and lies.

The disturbing underlying reality of this event is that Westerners will pay to hear certain narratives that give them heart in the ideological battle they wish to wage against Islam, they will pay people to sing the songs that match their dreams–unfortunately for them, it looks like this particular pitchman for this narrative was diluting the tea he sold with something less appetizing.