Greg Mortenson, Still a Hero
Bozeman’s Famous Humanitarian Emerges in a Better Light After Outside Magazine Interview
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Hospitalized in Bozeman for heart trouble, undergoing surgery, and facing a tornado of negative press related to allegations of wrong doing, Greg Mortenson faces some of the most difficult circumstances life can offer. If that assessment sounds sympathetic, it’s meant to—he’s a good man, and even his most ardent critics recognize his humanitarian accomplishments.
The negative press has dogged Mortenson since Steve Kroft’s 60 Minutes exposé portrayed alleged irregularities in the finances of his Central Asia Institute and “fabrications” in his best selling book Three Cups of Tea. With amazing speed, Mortenson’s former benefactor turn-ed critic, Jon Krakauer, then releas-ed a 75 page digital file titled Three Cups of Deceit, How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, just days after the 60 Minutes bombshell. Mortenson stands accus-ed by Krakauer, a fellow mountain climber who donated $75,000 to the Central Asia Institute, and by others, of misrepresenting his experi-ences in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and of misappropriating monies donated to CAI, based in Bozeman.
The introduction to Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit reads, “Greg Mortenson has built a global reputa-tion as a selfless humanitarian and children's crusader, and he's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also not what he appears to be.…Mortenson has not only fabricated substantial parts of his bestselling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, but has also misused millions of dollars donated by unsuspecting admirers….”
Krakauer alleges Mortenson inflated the number of schools he built in Pakistan and Afghanistan and that he used donations totaling in the millions without accountability, prompting a CAI board member resignation as early as 2002, and to promote his book more recently.
The Santa Monica Mirror published an article (one of dozens worldwide dealing with Mortenson) citing donations made by children to Mortenson’s cause of childhood edu-cation in Pakistan, with the headline: Local Schools Misled in Alleged Middle East School Funding Fraud, and with the subheading: Pennies For Peace Founder Facing Numerous Allegations. Then Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock began an investigation into the CAI, just as Viking, Mortenson’s publisher, said it would investigate the accounts in Mortenson’s bestsellers.
In short order, Mortenson went from, as they say, hero to zero. It is his record of having built schools for children in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan that remains, to a significant degree, his saving grace, though the degree to which he accomplished this, compared to his claims, and the amount of continu-ing support provided (considering the millions donated) are also disputed by critics.
Skeptical of 60 Minutes and its tactic of ambush journalism, voices have risen in support of Mortenson, especially in Bozeman, as well they should. His story ennobles the soul, and it inspires—even the U.S. military relating to its campaign in Afghanistan, which made Three Cups of Tea required reading. And it is an amazing account—a mountaineer descends the treacherous snows of K2 in Pakistan, lost and emaciated, then falls into the care of isolated villagers in Korphe, where he promises to build a school—the beginning of a life’s calling, an inspiration to the world, an antidote to terror.
Later, on a return visit, Mortenson was “kidnapped” by members of the “Taliban,” a characterization 60 Minutes depicted as less than credible. In his Outside Magazine interview, and in a written response to 60 Minutes, Mortenson tried to clear the air. “Yes, I was detained for eight days in Waziristan in 1996,” he wrote. “It was against my will, and my passport and money were taken from me. I was not mistreated or harmed, but I was also not allowed to leave. A blanket was put over my head any time I was moved by vehicle. A ‘Talib’ means student in Arabic, and yes there were Taliban in the region. Waziristan is an area where tribal factions and clan ties run deep. Some people are Taliban, some are not, and affiliations change overnight often on a whim…”
With that response, a case for fudging could be made—there were Taliban in that region, he writes, a statement that suggests uncertainty about the identity of his captors. One of these Taliban, Manor Khan Mashed, runs the FATA Research Centre in Islamabad, and he writes for American Foreign Policy Magazine. Having recently learned of his designation by Mortenson as a kidnapper, he is now suing Mortenson for character defamation.
Mosharraf Zaidi, an adviser to governments and international organizations delivering aid in Pakistan and Afghanistan, also takes issue with Mortenson, writing recent-ly in Foreign Policy that “the Tali-ban were busy taking over Afghan-istan in 1996 and did not arrive in Pakistan until at least 2001.”
Faced with alleged contradictory statements by porters in Pakistan, 60 Minutes left the impression that Mortenson did not actually descend K2 and stumble into Korphe, and Mortenson added fuel to the fire by admitting certain events in Three Cups of Tea were “compressed version of events that took place in the fall of 1993.” The porters’ contradictions reported by 60 Minutes related to the chronology of his experiences, Mortenson countered, resulted from the local language’s ambiguity when it comes to tense usage. Some say no such ambiguity exists—how are we to know?
In the Outside Magazine interview Mortenson recounts in detail and convincingly that the story of his descent into Korphe was accur-ate. In that interview, he explained how co-author David Oliver Relin took over his book project and created the compression of events while Mortenson was in Pakistan, only able to hear Relin’s passages over the phone, or as he was otherwise absorbed in work or family. Mortenson says he objected to the compression device, yet in the end the book bears his name—so this is not a via-ble excuse, but it is an explanation, as is his description of how corruption in Pakistan led to schools being abandoned. And so, there is another side to the story reported by 60 Minutes, and by Krakauer, who admits he was embittered by his association with Mortenson.
Indisputably, Mortenson allowed the finances of Central Asia Insti-tute, a charity, and those of his profession as a writer to become intertwined. We do not yet know to what extent, but he tells us that much of the donations that did not go to building schools, rather than having gone solely to promoting his book, went to domestic humanitarian and educational efforts. Particulars will be revealed by the Attorney General of the state of Montana.
Another important context to this story is 60 Minutes itself, a TV “news” magazine that over the years has demonstrated that it decides in advance how a story will be told, then ruthlessly edits interviews to support its pre-drawn conclusions, omitting evidence to the contrary. Former CAI board members have already contested the reportage (see next page). This does not necessarily absolve Mortenson, but it reveals that there is more to the story than that which 60 Minutes reported.
With all Mortenson’s humanitarian work (he continues to be held in high regard in villages where his schools are functioning), and with the onslaught of criticism he now endures, we might suspend judgement until the facts are in, listen closely to both sides, and consider that when heroes reveal flaws they are denigrated by lesser men.
Mortenson has done more than most of us ever will to make the world a better place (any profit, by the way, that he acquires from book sales, are deserved—he’s earned them). If he is proved to be an imperfect hero, let the chips fall where they may, but let him not be judged unfairly.