America’s bestselling author of "Three Cups of Tea," an inspiring account of building schools in Afghanistan, fought for his reputation Monday after a report said he’d made up much of the story.
Greg Mortenson’s book has sold more than four million copies and become required reading at the Pentagon, which sees the attempt to bring education to remote communities, especially for girls, as part of the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
But an investigative report on CBS News’ program "60 Minutes" late Sunday said that many of the schools supposedly run by Mortenson’s charity had never opened and suggested that the author’s main goal appeared to be personal enrichment.
The uproar confronted the publishing industry with yet another high-profile challenge over the accuracy of a prominent memoir.
Mortenson shot back in a series of statements to media outlets and supporters to defend both his book and his charity, the Central Asia Institute (CAI).
"I stand by the information conveyed in my book," he wrote in a statement, "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."
The "60 Minutes" report questions both the veracity of the story of how Mortenson became involved with Pakistan and Afghanistan and the accomplishments of the CAI since then.
In "Three Cups of Tea," Mortenson tells the stirring story of how he was rescued and nursed to health in the remote Pakistani village of Korphe after a failed climb in 1993 of the mountain K2.
He writes it was then, as he recovered, that he first promised villagers to come back and build a school — a decision that gave birth to his now famous campaign across the region.
CBS called it the "powerful and heart-warming tale that has motivated millions of people to buy his book and contribute nearly $60 million to his charity."
But it was a lie, according to another best-selling author and mountaineer, Jon Krakauer. He told CBS that after heavily backing Mortenson he’d discovered that the Korphe incident had never happened, saying: "Greg never heard of Korphe till a year later."
Another dramatic incident allegedly invented in the memoir was Mortenson’s 1996 kidnapping by the Taliban. In his book and in the follow-up "Stones into Schools" he claims to have befriended them and won release.
But CBS said the men Mortenson identified as Taliban kidnappers had in fact been assigned to protect the American while he traveled in the dangerous Waziristan area on the Afghan-Pakistani border.
One of them, Mansur Khan Mahsud, is a respected academic in Pakistan and he told CBS that the account was "totally false and he is lying. He was not kidnapped."
Asked why Mortenson might have written lies, Mahsud said: "to sell his book."
More serious are allegations of financial mismanagement at the charity and accusations that many of the schools listed as having been built are also fictitious.
In 2009, the Central Asia Institute said it ran 54 schools in Afghanistan, with 28,475 pupils, most of them girls.
However, "60 Minutes" said it went to about half of those schools and that of these half were deserted, or operating without links to Mortenson.
In a statement to The New York Times, Mortenson’s assistant Jeff McMillan said there were simply schools where the charity only paid for teachers, while in others it paid for construction and that CBS had failed to explain this.
McMillan also said that CBS may have found empty schools because the Afghan school year began on March 23. "I don’t know when CBS was there, but if it was when school was out, the schools would appear to be empty," he said.
The president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog, told CBS that Mortenson was using charity funds to travel on lengthy speaking tours, where he signs and sells his books to enthusiastic audiences.
According to the report, the charity lists $1.7 million in "book-related expenses" but receives none of the proceeds from the book sales.
"Sounds like a book tour to me," the institute president, Daniel Borochoff, said.
In a response emailed to supporters, the Central Asia Institute said that the books were "integral to accomplishing our mission" because they raise awareness among Americans of Afghanistan’s problems.
"Contributions from individuals who are inspired by ‘Three Cups of Tea’ and ‘Stones into Schools’ far exceed CAI’s book-related expenditures."
The statement also said that Mortenson had personally contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars from his book profits.