3000 Cups of Deceit
Greg Mortenson, disgraced author of ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ believes he will have the last laugh. And he might be right.
In 2014, Newsweek revealed that Somaly Mam—the Cambodian anti-trafficking crusader endorsed by Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl Sandberg, and Susan Sarandon—lied about being sold into sexual slavery as a child, the story that underpins her wrenching memoir, The Road to Lost Innocence. When Mam was exposed as a fraud, the directors of the Somaly Mam Foundation forced her to resign from the charity she founded, and announced they would be “rebranding, renaming, and re-launching our organization.”
In 2012, Lance Armstrong’s unwavering insistence that he won seven Tours de France without using performance-enhancing drugs was shown to be a monstrous act of deceit. Armstrong was stripped of his victories, banned from bike racing for life, and compelled to leave the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which subsequently changed its name to the Livestrong Foundation.
Which brings us to Greg Mortenson, the exalted school builder whose bestselling memoir, Three Cups of Tea, is billed as “the astonishing, uplifting story of a real-life Indiana Jones and his remarkable humanitarian campaign in the Taliban’s backyard.” In 2011, Mortenson was unmasked on 60 Minutes as a self-aggrandizing fabulist who used his charity, the Central Asia Institute, as “his personal ATM,” according to the CAI treasurer. But unlike Mam and Armstrong, Mortenson wasn’t booted to the curb. Turning a blind eye to his dishonest words and deeds, the CAI board of directors continued to pitch Mortenson as the organization’s moral exemplar and guiding light, and kept paying him $169,000 per year, according to financial records released by CAI.
This is no small triumph for Mortenson, given the voluminous and irrefutable evidence of his misdemeanors. In 2012, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock completed an investigation of Mortenson and his charity that resulted in Mortenson having to pay $1.2 million in restitution, including $214,000 he’d charged to CAI “for such things as L.L. Bean clothing, iTunes, luggage, luxurious accommodations, and even vacations.” Despite the ongoing scandal, however, the Mortenson cult of personality endures. He adroitly leveraged the allegiance of his most steadfast adherents to maintain control over CAI, which received about $3 million in donations last year.
Mortenson’s success at dodging accountability can be explained in part by the humble, shambling, Gandhi-like persona he’s manufactured for public consumption. But it also demonstrates how difficult it is to correct a false belief after people have made an emotional investment in that belief being true.
When our heroes turn out to be sleazebags, self-deception is easier than facing the facts.
Mortenson’s staying power raises doubts about the edict, generally accepted as gospel, that the best way to manage a public-relations crisis is to immediately accept responsibility for one’s transgressions and express remorse. Disregarding the conventional wisdom, Mortenson has maintained that although “mistakes were made,” he hasn’t committed any significant wrongdoing, which gives his supporters grounds for continuing to live in denial.
In Three Cups of Deceit, published in 2011, I detailed the whoppers that made Three Cups of Tea and its sequel, Stones into Schools, so captivating. His invented tales of derring-do turned Mortenson into a celebrity and generated $80 million in donations to CAI. But they also distorted the reality of life in the remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan where most of the CAI schools have been built, smeared the reputations of colleagues and villagers who assisted him, and promulgated ugly cultural clichés about the violent nature and religious fanaticism of the tribal communities he purported to help.
Mortenson has changed crucial details of his story several times in recent years, improvising on the fly with the instincts of a natural con artist, boldly layering lie upon lie to confound his inquisitors. One might think this periodic rescripting would eventually catch up to him, but the tactic appears have worked pretty well thus far. Oversight of the nonprofit sector is lax. It’s not hard to game the system. And when hagiographic fables about Potemkin heroes like Mortenson and Somaly Mam become lodged in the popular imagination, they acquire a sheen of legitimacy that makes them tough to debunk.
When I first met Mortenson, in 1997, he shared a story that inspired me to donate more than $75,000 to CAI. In 1993, Greg told me, he got separated from his companions while hiking out of the Karakoram Range after failing to climb K2, and became lost. Trying to reach a village called Askole, where his friends were waiting for him, he staggered exhausted and emaciated into a village called Korphe instead, which was cut off from civilization by a surging river. The dirt-poor Balti people who lived there had no electricity, no government support, and no school. Disease and malnutrition were rampant. But the village chieftain—a grizzled, hobbit-like sage named Haji Ali—took Mortenson into his home and, over the weeks that followed, gradually nursed him back to health.
An extended version of this tale fills the early chapters of Three Cups of Tea. In a pivotal scene on page 33, describing Mortenson’s last day in Korphe before heading home to the United States, he placed his hands on Haji Ali’s shoulders and, in the name of his deceased sister, made a pledge that brought tears to the eyes of millions of readers:
This fabricated anecdote is the nexus of almost everything that has happened to Mortenson since it allegedly took place: the creation of CAI, the flood of donations, the multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominations. Mortenson has done hundreds of media interviews to promote his charity and himself since he built his first school, and the Korphe creation myth was repeated almost every time he opened his mouth.
Shortly after the scandal erupted, however, Mortenson went underground and refused to speak to journalists or answer questions from donors, choosing instead to communicate sporadically through spokespersons. He dropped off the radar until January 2014, when he finally broke a thirty-one-month media embargo by agreeing to do an interview with Tom Brokaw on the Today show. But unlike Lance Armstrong—who sat down with Oprah in January 2013 and confessed that he’d been lying through his teeth for years—Mortenson didn’t go on television to come clean. “I stand by the stories,” Mortenson defiantly told Brokaw. “The stories happened.”
Spoiler alert: The stories didn’t really happen—not the ones that made Mortenson famous. To grasp the extent of Mortenson’s fakery, and the amazing lengths to which he’s gone to keep his lies from being exposed, you need to go deep into the weeds. The details are important.
In the final interview Mortenson did before going silent after the 60 Minutes exposé in 2011, Alex Heard, editorial director of Outside magazine, asked him, “Are there factual errors in [Three Cups of Tea], and if so, how did they get there?” During his meandering, evasive reply, Mortenson suggested that any errors were nothing more than literary license:
It’s really complicated, but I’m not a journalist. I don’t take a lot of notes. David [Oliver Relin] and I collaborated. He did nearly all the writing, and along with hundreds of interviews of those involved in the story, I helped him piece together the whole timeline, and from that we started creating the narrative arc and everything…. What happens then is, when you re-create the scenes, you have my recollections, the different memories of those involved, you have his writing, and sometimes things come out different. In order to be convenient, there were some omissions. If we included everything I did from 1993 to 2003 it would take three books to write it. So there were some omissions and compressions.
In fact, there are dozens of significant falsehoods in both Three Cups of Tea and its sequel, Stones into Schools, which cannot be passed off as “omissions and compressions.” Mortenson’s outrageous claim, for instance, that he was kidnapped by the Taliban in South Waziristan, when actually he was hosted by gracious tribesmen who treated him as an honored guest, and had no connection with the Taliban.
No less outrageous is Mortenson’s insistence that he built schools in territory that was under Taliban and Al Qaeda control, as a way of combating their ideological influence and waging his own nonviolent “War on Terror” (the subtitle of the first edition of Stones into Schools was “Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan”). In truth, all but a tiny number of the schools established by CAI have been built in peaceful locales where jihadist groups have little or no influence. Furthermore, although there are many excellent reasons to provide education to illiterate tribal communities, education does not inoculate against terrorist ideology in Central Asia or anywhere else, contrary to Mortenson’s assurances. All the pilots who flew hijacked jets into the World Trade Center on 9/11, and many of those who helped plan the attacks, were educated at Western universities.
When Alex Heard interviewed Mortenson, he grilled him about the veracity of the CAI creation myth described in Three Cups of Tea, which relies on Mortenson’s claim that he blundered into Korphe after taking a wrong fork in the trail leading down from K2, and thereby missed a crucial bridge across the Braldu River that led to his intended destination, Askole. “But you stand by the Korphe story as it was written?” Heard asked.
“Well, there are discrepancies that, again, have to do with compression of events,” Mortenson replied, while remaining adamant that these “discrepancies” didn’t impugn the essential truth of his story. Mortenson explained that he spent the final night of his trek down from K2 with his climbing partner, Scott Darsney, and their two porters, Yakub and Mouzafer, near the snout of the Biafo Glacier, which is seven miles above Askole. “The next morning,” Mortenson said,
I was so weak that I pretty much ditched everything I had. We started walking at around 10 or 11, I got left behind as usual, and I was alone when I hit a fork in the road. When you’re coming out from there, there’s a fork in the trail about two hours before Askole, a village where expeditions park their jeeps when they hit the trailhead. If you go… to the left—which I did—it goes to Korphe. The main trail goes right,… heading to Askole. I made a wrong turn there. So I ended up in Korphe. I was met there by Haji Ali, the village chief. I got to Korphe, I would say, early afternoon.… I remember collapsing by the inner hearth of his house. I thought I was in Askole, but they said, No, you’re in Korphe. I was there a few hours, probably two or three hours, had tea, and I said, I gotta go to Askole. They took me to a cable-pulley bridge over the Braldu River.
There is an insurmountable problem with Mortenson’s account, however. The well-established trekking route from the Baltoro Glacier down to Askole follows the north side of the Braldu River the entire way, without ever crossing it. Korphe is on the other side of the river—the south side.
According to Masood Ahmad, a Pakistani-American educator and mountain guide who trekked from the Baltoro Glacier to Askole approximately two weeks after Mortenson, “I can also categorically and unequivocally state that there was NO bridge across the Braldu River between Askole and Korphe in 1993, as I was there during the same time Greg Mortenson was.”
Regardless of whether Mortenson took a wrong fork in the trail, there is no way he could have ended up in Korphe unless he swam across the Braldu—which is roiled by rapids and paralyzingly cold. Given his debilitated condition after his ordeal on K2, it strains belief to suggest that Mortenson would have even considered swimming across the Braldu. Had he attempted it, he almost certainly would have drowned.
After I pointed out in Three Cups of Deceit that it would have been impossible for him to reach Korphe by the route he described above, Mortenson abandoned that story, without explanation or apology, in favor of an entirely different tale. In this new account (written by CAI Communications Director Karin Ronnow, and published in CAI’s annual magazine, Journey of Hope, in November 2011), Mortenson didn’t make a wrong turn “two hours before Askole.” Instead, he continued down the obvious trail to Askole and then, immediately before entering that village — defying common sense — he took a sharp turn to the left, descended a steep, rocky slope, and walked across the Braldu River on a little-known suspension bridge, which he then neglected to mention for the next eighteen years.
The remains of this bridge are still visible a mile east of the Korphe school. Although it’s been ravaged by seasonal floods and more than a decade of neglect, what’s left of the ruined span can be seen in the Google Earth photo below. The southern terminus of its fraying cables is anchored to the edge of a broad alluvial shelf overlooking the Braldu River, a place called Testay Dass. But Mortenson could not have reached Korphe by walking across this bridge in 1993, as he claimed, because the bridge didn’t exist at the time.
Balti workers who built the bridge at Testay Dass say that construction didn’t begin until 1999, and wasn’t completed until 2000. And here’s the kicker: It was Mortenson who personally arranged for this bridge to be built and paid for with CAI funds, according to Zaman Ali, a resident of Askole who helped build it.
When I noted in a blog post that Mortenson’s claim to have reached Korphe in 1993 by accidentally crossing this suspension bridge was as demonstrably false as his earlier claim to have ended up in Korphe because he took a wrong fork in the trail and failed to cross a bridge, he said nothing more about the suspension bridge. Instead, he invented yet another tale.
This is standard operating procedure for Mortenson. When caught in a lie, he shamelessly overwrites it with a new lie, even if the new one repudiates what he previously swore was the truth.
In 2012, Greg Mortenson traveled to Korphe for the first time in several years. During this visit, according to a Korphe native, Mortenson invited all the residents of Korphe, Testay Dass, and a small nearby settlement known as Tinu to a feast. While the villagers were eating, he offered five hundred Pakistani rupees—slightly less than five dollars—to anyone who would testify there was a bridge across the Braldu River at Testay Dass in 1993. “The temptation is big,” explains a woman whose husband is from Korphe. “This is the thing. Life in Baltistan is so hard.”
Fast-forward to the summer of 2013. Mortenson returned to Korphe with a two-person film crew from Utah: Jennifer Jordan, the director; and her husband, videographer Jeff Rhoads. On her website, Jordan describes Mortenson as “her friend and colleague.” She and Rhoads had accompanied him to Baltistan to make a documentary titled 3000 Cups of Tea, which was intended to refute the allegations made by 60 Minutes and me about Mortenson’s lack of probity. Before their departure, Mortenson told Jordan he would introduce her to local men who would say on camera that they witnessed Mortenson cross the Braldu River in 1993. And sure enough, as promised, when Jordan and Rhoads arrived in Baltistan they were taken to interview two Baltis who told them exactly what the American film crew had traveled so far to hear.
On March 13, 2014, Jordan posted a seven-minute trailer on the Internet to raise money for the post-production phase of her documentary. The trailer opened with a series of video clips in which Greg’s wife, CAI board members, and other devoted Mortenson supporters delivered intensely emotional criticisms of 60 Minutes and me, while a sorrowful dirge played in the background.
A little later Mortenson appeared on-screen to speak for the thousands of kids allegedly harmed by our investigations. “What really bothered me,” Greg said, “was it seemed like there was more intent to try and destroy me, with no regard for the children overseas.”
Jennifer Jordan—who narrated the film in addition to directing it—looked scornfully into the camera and declared, “One of the most damning allegations [made by 60 Minutes and Krakauer] was that Greg lied in his book Three Cups of Tea, in going to Korphe on his way out of the mountains.” Then the trailer cut to a clip from the 60 Minutes broadcast of me telling Steve Kroft, “It’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie.”
Soon thereafter Jordan delivered what she intended to be the knockout punch: “Once on the ground in that tiny village…, every villager we spoke to remembered Greg from twenty years before. We even found the men who were then boys playing on the riverbank, and they saw Greg coming over the bridge, stumbling out of the mountains.” As Jordan spoke, the two villagers she interviewed in 2013 were shown speaking in Balti, apparently affirming Mortenson’s bogus claim that a bridge to Korphe existed in 1993.
On May 10, 2016, to substantiate this claim, Mortenson posted the photo below on Facebook, asserting this was the very bridge he used to cross the Braldu River (note: Greg refers to Testay Dass as “Teste village” in his post):
Truth is indeed incontrovertible. And the plain truth is this: Mortenson’s Facebook post is bullshit, and Greg knew it was bullshit when he posted it.
The photo above has been circulating on the Internet since 2009. Shot by a Canadian mountaineer named Bill Noble in 1988, it depicts a notoriously insubstantial bridge woven from willow branches. But according to Eric Sandbo, who is one of the people boldly crossing it in the photo, this bridge was swept away by high water at least a year or two before Mortenson arrived in Pakistan. Sandbo also states that the bridge was definitely not located at Testay Dass. Before it collapsed into the churning current, it spanned the Braldu River at a location 1.3 miles west of Testay Dass, downstream from both Korphe and Askole. Thus, even if this bridge had still been standing in 1993, to reach it Mortenson would’ve had to walk directly through the center of Askole, where his friends were anxiously waiting to meet him, so there would have been no reason for him to cross it.
When I sent Mortenson photographs that proved his claim about crossing this bridge to be untrue, he replied with the email below, and eventually deleted his deceitful Facebook post.
Even though Mortenson conceded to me, privately, that his Facebook claim was false, he didn’t make a public retraction. Instead, he and his boosters have continued to insist that he arrived in Korphe by crossing the river at Testay Dass.
Undeniable evidence shows that Greg’s Korphe story was an elaborately wrought piece of fiction. Attempting to palm it off as the truth by posting such a brazenly deceptive photo on Facebook is further confirmation that nothing Mortenson says can be trusted.
At the time of his April 2011 interview with Alex Heard for Outside magazine, Greg Mortenson had not yet concocted a narrative about crossing the Braldu on a suspension bridge of his own construction, or invented a subsequent tale about a bridge woven from willow vines. And Heard failed to note the obvious impossibility of Mortenson’s earlier claim of having wandered into Korphe after taking a wrong turn and not crossing a bridge. But Heard recognized that the story Mortenson told him was quite different from the account of the same events presented in Three Cups of Tea. “In the book,” Heard pointed out, “you’re described as being in Korphe overnight, but now you think you were really there only a few hours.”
Caught off guard, Mortenson acknowledged, “The … scene in Korphe about building a school happened in September 1994, a year later.” In fact, this statement isn’t true, either, because Mortenson didn’t return to Pakistan until November 1994, and probably didn’t actually visit Korphe for the first time until March 1995. But during his interview with Heard, Mortenson nevertheless confessed that in 1993 he was in Korphe for at most “a few hours,” and during this alleged visit he didn’t promise Haji Ali or anyone else that he would build a school there. Which verifies that the most consequential anecdote in Three Cups of Tea, around which the rest of the book unfolds, is a fabrication.
To appreciate the magnitude of this lie, one should re-read the first eight chapters of the book while bearing in mind that Mortenson, by his own admission, didn’t spend a single night in Korphe after trekking out of from K2.
The two paragraphs of overheated prose shown below, excerpted from page 31, provide a sample of what I’m talking about:
Mortenson suggested to Alex Heard that the co-author of Three Cups of Tea, David Oliver Relin, shared responsibility for any inaccuracies that might be present in the book. Perhaps, but it should be pointed out that Mortenson had been spinning yarns to donors and journalists about his life-changing visit to Korphe and his nearly fatal kidnapping by the Taliban for at least five years before he met Relin.
On November 15, 2012, Relin committed suicide by lying down on railroad tracks as a train approached, positioning his body so the locomotive struck his head. Although it’s unclear what, if any, direct relationship there may have been between Relin’s suicide and the Mortenson scandal, in the aftermath of his death, Relin’s wife told detectives that he’d been suffering from clinical depression and was taking several medications to alleviate it, with mixed results. “David had recently stopped taking an antidepressant—one that is notoriously difficult to get off of,” she noted. “I have since learned that one of the possible side effects of the medication may be an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.”
Jennifer Jordan’s documentary, 3000 Cups of Tea, was released in September 2016. From start to finish, it presents Greg Mortenson as the innocent victim of a scandal promulgated by journalists who were inspired by envy, greed, and spite to ruin his reputation. Jordan blames 60 Minutes and me for Greg’s mountain of trouble, while portraying Mortenson as a persecuted saint. Without explicitly acknowledging that Greg ever lied, the film suggests any misrepresentations he might have made were insignificant, and did no real harm.
Some of Mortenson’s many falsehoods are indeed of little consequence. But others are not. When I spent five months embedded with American combat troops in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, shortly after the publication of Three Cups of Tea, I discovered that Mortenson had credibility with a surprising number of soldiers and Marines, based largely on his fake claim to have survived being kidnapped by the Taliban. By 2009 his book had become required reading for thousands of troops, including officers taking graduate-level counterinsurgency training at the Pentagon. Mortenson acted as a consultant to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General David Patraeus, who oversaw publication of the military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual; and General Stanley McChrystal, who became commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2009. Three Cups of Tea functioned as a quasi-handbook for American military strategy, despite the fact that Mortenson’s purported knowledge of the ethnic dynamics in the region was wildly exaggerated, and much of his advice was specious.
Mortenson’s apologists say that by questioning his integrity, 60 Minutes and I have done irreparable harm to schoolchildren in Central Asia. As evidence of this supposed harm, they point to the drastic reduction in donations to CAI since April 2011.
Mortenson doesn’t seem to grasp that the precipitous decline in donations was a sensible reaction to the extensive malfeasance we exposed. When donors learned they’d been conned, they were right to be angry. And by witholding financial support, they sent an important message that Mortenson and his enablers have chosen to ignore.
Mortenson’s ethical failings and staggering incompetence are without question the primary cause of his charity’s ongoing woes, but he’s never accepted any real responsibility for the damage he’s done. And it wasn’t just CAI that was harmed by Greg. His behavior has diminished trust in legitimate nonprofit organizations around the world.
When considered in aggregate, Mortenson’s lies exhibit an alarming pattern of behavior. His habitual dishonesty, along with his concomitant refusal to demand accountability from his handpicked cadre of overseas program directors, have fostered a culture of corruption that afflicts CAI at all levels of its operations. The charity has been embroiled in lawsuits with two of its ex-program directors, Ghulam Parvi and Ilyas Mirza (who received gushing praise from Mortenson in his books), over alleged misappropriation of CAI funds and property. Another Pakistani program director, Suleman Minhas (a former taxi-driver and longtime Mortenson sidekick), continued to be employed by CAI even though a 2012 audit indicated that he, too, had his hand deep in the till.
Although various audits of CAI’s financial records reveal that millions of dollars cannot be accounted for, the wrongdoing by CAI staff goes well beyond alleged theft. On June 20, 2014, I received a pair of emails from a desperate Pakistani teacher begging me for help:
we have a severe problem…. 40 teachers were terminated by cai program director kashmir…. we [emailed CAI] but no one is willing to help us. they terminated us without any notice and benefits…. 40 persons are jobless without any reason…. no one is there who honestly investigates this. since two months we are trying but we are helpless now. u are the only hope do some thing plz sir investigate this
When I asked Steve Barrett, the president of the CAI board of directors, why 40 teachers had been abruptly fired in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the Pakistan-controlled state ravaged by an earthquake in 2005, he didn’t know what I was talking about. A day later, Barrett sent me a hastily written press release dated 25 June 2014, and signed by CAI Communications Director Karin Ronnow:
Central Asia Institute (CAI) has discontinued its teacher-support program in Azad Jammu Kashmir after the AJK government informed local CAI management this spring that the program was no longer needed…. Nine years after the devastating quake, the government is reasserting its control over the education system.
I quickly learned from multiple sources in Pakistan that the explanation provided by Ronnow was utterly false. More than 400 government schools destroyed by the quake, which killed 100,000 people, have yet to be rebuilt, and the AJK government is still actively soliciting assistance from foreign NGOs. Correspondence on CAI letterhead, signed by CAI’s AJK program director, Fozia Naseer, suggests the teachers were unilaterally terminated by Naseer despite multiple requests from the AJK Minister of Education that she honor the teachers’ contracts with CAI, which guaranteed their employment through 2020. Naseer apparently fired the teachers in a fit of pique over a dispute with the AJK government, intending to force the cancellation of classes at 20 schools for hundreds of girls.
The dispute arose from the closure of a small hostel run by Naseer in AJK’s capital city, Muzaffarabad. CAI provided funding for the hostel, which housed 18 female students who’d come to the city from distant villages to attend school. When the Muzaffarabad Deputy Commissioner conducted an inspection of the hostel in 2012, though, he discovered that it had been established without proper registration. The inspection also allegedly turned up evidence of drug use and other illicit activities at the hostel, so the Deputy Commissioner ordered Naseer to close it.
To forestall the shutdown, Naseer filed a lawsuit, and then, on April 24, 2014, she terminated forty teachers who were on the CAI payroll. Firing all those teachers was a despicable attempt by Naseer to coerce the AJK government into reversing the Deputy Commissioner’s order to shutter her hostel.
According to the teacher who contacted me, Naseer fired the teachers,
right at the crucial moment in the girls’ education when they were taking their board exams…. Because we love our students, we have continued to teach them…. The government is on our side, and they wrote two letters [to Naseer] asking her, “Please, do not stop paying the teachers.” But she told the government, “What can I do? CAI has terminated the program—they do not have any money to pay the teachers’ salary.”… We have not been paid since two months, and now including July it will be three months…. What will happen to us? What are we supposed to do?… CAI has snatched our jobs away from us without any reason.
On June 5, 2014, the High Court of AJK ruled against Naseer and dismissed her lawsuit. But the teachers remained unsure if they would ever be paid by CAI, while Naseer continued to draw a salary of $3,000 per month—twice as much as the prime minister of AJK was paid.
This fiasco, and the fact that CAI’s American staff didn’t even seem to be aware of it until I told the board of directors about the mess, are symptomatic of the charity’s dysfunctionality. More than three years after its problems were exposed by 60 Minutes, CAI was still a goat rodeo.
During his investigation of CAI, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock (who became governor of that state in 2013) determined that the charity’s misdeeds were exacerbated by the fact that for much of its existence “there was a deliberate effort to put people who are loyal to Mortenson on the board.” Bullock thus forbade Mortenson to hold any position at the charity involving financial oversight, and required CAI to replace its entire board, which at the time consisted of Mortenson and two devoted acolytes, Abdul Jabbar and Karen McCown.
Individually and collectively, the three board members had made some blatantly false statements when the scandal erupted. Jabbar declared, for example, “There has been absolutely no financial misappropriation.” Mortenson, Jabbar, and McCown issued a press release asserting, “Greg has personally donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization, which includes a percentage of his royalties from his books, and worked for the organization without compensation for a number of years.” According to CAI’s financial records, though, at no point since the charity’s inception did Mortenson ever work without receiving a paycheck, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars Mortenson “personally donated” to CAI actually amounted to two checks issued just 48 hours before the press release was written.
One of the last acts by McCown and Jabbar before Bullock forced them to resign was to appoint seven new members to the board of directors, with input from Mortenson, and loyalty to Mortenson appears to have been one of the main criteria for selection, subverting Bullock’s intent to replace the board with independent directors. The new board subsequently appointed George McCown, Karen’s husband, to the board as an eighth director, bestowed the title “emeritus advisor” to Karen McCown and Jabbar, and invited Mortenson to remain on the board as a ninth, “ex-officio,” member. Thus, CAI continued to be guided by the same individuals who drove CAI over the cliff, Mortenson continued to exert influence over CAI’s operations, and he continued to receive a six-figure salary.
Despite CAI’s integral role in the conception, creation, and marketing of Three Cups of Tea, the CAI board of directors has given no indication that CAI intends to do anything to inform potential donors that the book is substantially a work of fiction. Like Mortenson’s publisher, Viking Penguin, the CAI board believes that Mortenson has no legal obligation to be truthful, and seems unconcerned about its complicity in Mortenson’s acts of literary flimflam as long as donations continue to roll in. A strong argument can be made that the United States Constitution does indeed give Mortenson license to fill his books with lies, and similarly entitles Viking Penguin to sell these false accounts as works of nonfiction. But even though Mortenson, his publisher, and the CAI board may have a legal right to take the public for a ride, the First Amendment doesn’t absolve their ethical responsibility to be truthful. Mortenson and his enablers seem to have lost sight of this.
The CAI board’s unceasing loyalty to Mortenson is hard to figure, especially in light of the recent scandals involving Somaly Mam, who was forced to resign from the foundation that bears her name, and Lance Armstrong, who was banished from the Livestrong Foundation. As New York Times reporter Juliet Macur noted in her book Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong, the decision to fire Armstrong wasn’t simple:
Armstrong had accomplished a lot with the Livestrong Foundation. He made it cool to survive cancer, and removed a stigma from those who had gone through months and years of pain and hospitalization. He personally donated $7 million, and the foundation raised a total of $500 million to help families touched by cancer.
When revealed as liars, both Armstrong and Mortenson blustered that their charities would fail without them. Armstrong sent an angry email to his board, calling them cowards for cutting him loose. But Armstrong’s board—which includes individuals with whom he had close personal relationships—recognized that someone who had acted so disreputably for so many years needed to be jettisoned if the foundation hoped to rehabilitate its reputation and succeed in its mission. Mortenson’s board, in striking contrast, remains obstinately in denial.
As for Greg Mortenson, he’s a tragic and ultimately perplexing figure. Perhaps his efforts to conceal his lies by compulsively refashioning them into ever more convoluted lies can be explained by some emotional wound he suffered in the distant past. On the other hand, maybe he’s simply playing the percentages.
As P.T. Barnum noted, you really can fool some of the people all of the time. And “some” can be a big number. Mortenson is selling hope at a time when the prospects for much of the world are looking increasingly grim. It’s counterfeit hope, for the most part, but it makes his supporters feel good about themselves, and that’s reason enough for faithful donors to refrain from asking questions, cling stubbornly to the illusion, and keep sending checks to CAI. Think of it as a perverse variant of the placebo effect. Although this doesn’t absolve Mortenson, it spreads the blame around, because in the final analysis, the only thing that allows people like him to remain in business is public demand for what they’re hawking.
This article was originally posted on Medium on July 20, 2014. It has been intermittently updated (most recently on June 26, 2017) to reflect important new developments. A more comprehensive examination of the Greg Mortenson scandal is available in my book, Three Cups of Deceit, available in paperback or as an eBook.