Thursday, April 21, 2011

Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer; ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ Spilled

After seeing 60 Minutes' expose on Greg Mortenson on Sunday (, I thought things couldn't get worse – but they have.  The 60 Minutes segment was positively KIND to him compared to the absolutely devastating 70-page book released yesterday by Jon Krakauer (you can download it for free for another day or two here: – formerly a friend, fellow mountaineer, and huge supporter of Mortenson and author of Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven, among others.  I couldn't put it down and stayed up past midnight last night to finish it. 


Every page was like a kick in the gut, as Krakauer meticulously documents three primary findings: 1) Just about every major tale in both of Mortenson's books is not merely embellished, but a complete fabrication; 2) Mortenson has looted his charity, the Central Asia Institute, of millions of dollars for his own benefit; and 3) With the 41% of its money that's left over after promoting (and enriching Mortenson), CAI does some good – it has, in fact, built many schools and there's no doubting how much awareness Mortenson and his books have raised.  But Krakauer documents that the organization is extremely ineffective and poorly run, and thus hasn't done nearly as much good as Mortenson claims, due to his dreadful management style and, likely, deliberate actions against the many competent and committed people who worked for or served on the board of CAI.


Nick Kristof read Krakauer's book and wrote about this scandal in his op ed in today's NYT (see the end of this email).  I think he is too kind to Mortenson, but I share his heartbreak and concern that this scandal will hurt "countless children in Afghanistan who now won't get an education after all":

My inclination is to reserve judgment until we know more, for disorganization may explain more faults than dishonesty. I am deeply troubled that only 41 percent of the money raised in 2009 went to build schools, and Greg, by nature, is more of a founding visionary than the disciplined C.E.O. necessary to run a $20 million-a-year charity. On the other hand, I'm willing to give some benefit of the doubt to a man who has risked his life on behalf of some of the world's most voiceless people.

I've visited some of Greg's schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.

I also believe that Greg was profoundly right about some big things.

He was right about the need for American outreach in the Muslim world. He was right that building schools tends to promote stability more than dropping bombs. He was right about the transformative power of education, especially girls' education. He was right about the need to listen to local people — yes, over cup after cup after cup of tea — rather than just issue instructions.

I worry that scandals like this — or like the disputes about microfinance in India and Bangladesh — will leave Americans disillusioned and cynical. And it's true that in their struggle to raise money, aid groups sometimes oversell how easy it is to get results. Helping people is more difficult than it seems, and no group of people bicker among themselves more viciously than humanitarians.

After my wife and I wrote "Half the Sky," we decided not to start our own foundation or aid organization but simply to use our book and Web site to point readers to other aid groups — partly because giving away money effectively is such difficult and uncertain work.

The furor over Greg's work breaks my heart. And the greatest loss will be felt not by those of us whose hero is discredited, nor even by Greg himself, but by countless children in Afghanistan who now won't get an education after all. But let's not forget that even if all the allegations turn out to be true, Greg has still built more schools and transformed more children's lives than you or I ever will.

As we sift the truth of these allegations, let's not allow this uproar to obscure that larger message of the possibility of change. Greg's books may or may not have been fictionalized, but there's nothing imaginary about the way some of his American donors and Afghan villagers were able to put aside their differences and prejudices and cooperate to build schools — and a better world.

Since most folks won't have time to read the entire book, I've summarized its three chapters below, but will start with excerpts from the conclusion of his book:


The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson's books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audacity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Mortenson has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. Three Cups of Tea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn't use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them. Moreover, Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. "Greg," says a former treasurer of the organization's board of directors, "regards CAI as his personal ATM." 


In all fairness, Greg Mortenson has done much that is admirable since he began working in Baltistan sixteen and a half years ago. He's been a tireless advocate for girls' education. He's established dozens of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that have benefited tens of thousands children, a significant percentage of them girls. A huge number of people regard him as a hero, and he inspires tremendous trust. It is now evident, however, that Mortenson recklessly betrayed this trust, damaging his credibility beyond repair. 


It might not be too late, though, to salvage the wreckage of Central Asia Institute, which has talented staff and valuable material assets that could further benefit people in the region. But if CAI is to be pulled back from the brink and rehabilitated, the organization must sever its ties with Mortenson. It needs to overhaul its board of directors, and find a principled executive director to replace him. 


During the past several months, as I came to grasp the magnitude of Mortenson's deceit, I felt ashamed at being so easily conned. How could those of us who enabled his fraud—and we are legion—have been so gullible? Ted Callahan attributes the uncritical acceptance of Mortenson and his shtick to the seemingly endless war raging in Central Asia. "The way I've always understood Greg," Callahan reflects, "is that he's a symptom of Afghanistan. Things are so bad that everybody's desperate for even one good-news story. And Greg is it. Everything else might be completely fucked up over there, but here's a guy who's persuaded the world that he's making a difference and doing things right." Mortenson's tale "functioned as a palliative," Callahan suggests. It soothed the national conscience. Greg may have used smoke and mirrors to generate the hope he offered, but the illusion made people feel good about themselves, so nobody was in a hurry to look behind the curtain. Although it doesn't excuse his dishonesty, Mortenson was merely selling what the public was eager to buy… 


…In March, when I attended Mortenson's lecture in Cheyenne, the experience unsettled me. After taking my seat, while waiting for the program to begin, I read the six-page brochure that had been handed out to everyone in the audience, and I noticed it included the usual lies: the Korphe myth, Mortenson's "eight-day armed kidnapping by the Taliban," the claim that for sixteen years he has built schools in "places often considered the front lines of the 'War on Terror.'" The next morning, I called Tom Hornbein to talk about the feelings that seeing Greg in person for the first time in years had stirred. It was Hornbein who initially introduced me to Greg, fourteen years ago, and my description of the Cheyenne event roiled Tom's emotions as well. Reflecting on his own bewildering relationship with Mortenson, he jotted down his thoughts and sent them to me a few hours after our conversation. 


"My transcendent emotional feeling is grief for the loss of what might have been," Hornbein wrote. "Like you, I feel as if I was stupidly conned, wanting to believe in the cause and its value and Greg's motivations. Part of me still wants to believe that there was/is something sincere in what he was setting about to do to change the world a bit for the better. Another part of me is just downright angry at his irresponsibility to the cause with which he was entrusted, the lives of so many whom he sucked in and, in effect, spit out, and not least Tara and their kids and other loving bystanders to the play…. I wish I understood the pathology that has compelled the unending need to embellish the truth so flagrantly. With one hand Greg has created something potentially beautiful and caring (regardless of his motives). With the other he has murdered his creation by his duplicity."


CHAPTER 1) Just about every major tale in both of Mortenson's books is not merely embellished, but a complete fabrication. 


The village of Korphe, in which the kind residents nursed Mortenson back to health after his near-death experience and to whom he promised to return and build a school?  In reality, Mortenson was never ill and never visited Korphe; after returning from his expedition and relaxing for a week in a "comfortable lodge", he visited a village called Khane, stayed a few days, and promised to build a school there.  When he raised funds in the U.S. and returned to fulfill his promise, he inexplicably "reneged on his pledge to build the school in Khane and announced that he intended to build it in Korphe instead."  Krakauer writes:


All of this diverges in irreconcilable ways from the heartwarming tale recounted in the first hundred pages of Three Cups of Tea. A passage on page 97, for example, describes Mortenson's triumphant "return" to Korphe in 1994, in which Mortenson, looking Haji Ali in the eye, declares, "I came back to keep my promise." In fact, Mortenson had never set foot in Korphe until that moment, and rather than keeping a promise, he was breaking the vow he had made to Khane. On page 89, Mortenson adds insult to this injury when he chastises the Khane villagers, "I never made any promise," accusing them of being greedy shysters for trying to hold him to the pledge he'd made in his sister's name—a commitment memorialized in the article he'd written a few months previously.


What about the key story in his second book, Stones into Schools, when he's kidnapped by the Taliban and held for eight days?  Karkauer writes:


If this stirring resolution to Mortenson's ordeal seems a bit far-fetched, it is. The entire story was fabricated. There was no wild party, no Taliban commander, no abduction of any sort. According to Mansur Khan Mahsud, a Pakistani scholar who frequently accompanied Mortenson during his visit to Tehsil Ladha, Mortenson was never threatened, no one ever pointed a gun at him, and no one ever held him against his will, even momentarily, during the approximately fifteen days he spent in South Waziristan. "Greg was never worried or frightened," says Mansur Khan, now the director of Research and Administration at the FATA Research Centre, an internationally respected, nonpartisan think tank in Islamabad. "No, no, no. He really enjoyed his stay there. And he was given very good treatment. If he tells, 'I have been kidnapped,' he is lying. He was an honored guest of the whole village."


What about the poignant visit to pay his respects to Mother Teresa, who had (supposedly) died recently?


According to Three Cups of Tea, during a layover at Calcutta International Airport while flying home from Asia in September 2000, "Mortenson learned that one of his heroes, Mother Teresa, had died…and decided to try and pay her his respects." Arriving at the Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse after the front gate was locked for the evening, he was admitted by a nun and escorted down a dark hallway to view Mother Teresa's corpse. "She lay on a simple cot, at the center of a bright room full of flickering devotional candles. Mortenson gently nudged other bouquets aside, making room for his gaudy offering, and took a seat against a wall. The nun, backing out the door, left him alone with Mother Teresa…. 'I sat in the corner staring at this shrouded figure,' Mortenson says. 'She looked so small, draped in her cloth. And I remember thinking how amazing it was that such a tiny person had such a huge effect on humanity.'…Mortenson knelt on the cool tiled floor next to Mother Teresa and placed his large palm over her small hand." This a poignant anecdote, but it's difficult to reconcile with the fact that Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997, three years before Mortenson says he knelt beside her in Calcutta.


CHAPTER 2) Mortenson has looted his charity, the Central Asia Institute, of millions of dollars for his own benefit.  "Greg," says a former treasurer of the organization's board of directors, "regards CAI as his personal ATM."  In summary, CAI has spent millions of dollars buying Mortenson's books – at full retail price, so Mortenson gets full royalties – and more millions on his travel – often via private jet – plus pays him a salary, yet Mortenson pockets 100% of all book royalties and speaking fees and expense reimbursements, and there is no record of him giving ANY money to CAI (despite the board's claim that he's done so). 


So see how this scam works, consider what happened when he came to speak at my daughters' school last year: he demanded $30,000 plus $3,000 in travel expenses, which was a LOT of money for the school, but we paid it, figuring it was going to a good cause (we assumed the money was going to his charity, and Mortenson always talks about how every penny raised by CAI goes to build and support schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan).  Instead, Krakauer reveals that Mortenson pocketed not only the $30,000 speaking fee, but also the $3,000 expense reimbursement, despite the fact that CAI pays for all of his travel expenses – and he does hundreds of these speeches every year!  Folks, there's a word for this: fraud!


Here's the end of this chapter:


An example of the "excessive benefits" provided to Mortenson were several full-page color advertisements in The New Yorker to promote Mortenson's books; CAI paid for all of these ads, each of which, according to the magazine's published ad rates, cost more than $100,000. Another example: CAI has routinely paid for extravagances such as a four-day excursion by Mortenson to the Telluride Mountain Film Festival in May 2010, where he was a featured speaker. A Learjet was chartered to fly Mortenson, his wife and children, and four other individuals from Montana to Colorado and back. CAI rented multiple residences in Telluride to house the entourage. Lavish meals were billed to the foundation. The jet charter alone cost CAI more than $15,000.


"For a charity that exists to help the poor in the developing world," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the charity watchdog the American Institute of Philanthropy, "this is pretty outrageous behavior. Mortenson is acting as if CAI was his own private business. It's not. He's using the public's money. CAI is a tax-exempt organization subsidized by our tax dollars. It sounds like he's violating every financial practice that nonprofits are supposed to follow. It's very important that any nonprofit separate personal and private business interests from its charitable interests. CAI should not be paying for all these expenses that serve to benefit Mortenson personally. The fact that the charity might also benefit doesn't make it OK."


Mortenson's Pennies for Peace program (P4P) is a commendable cultural studies course that also happens to function as a phenomenally effective marketing-and-fundraising scheme for CAI. By pitching P4P directly to kids, their teachers, and school administrators, Mortenson has induced nearly three thousand schools in the United States and Canada to make P4P part of their standard K–12 curriculum. Hundreds of thousands of children have contributed their lunch money in response to P4P fundraising appeals. "The Pennies for Peace money, every single penny, we put it very quickly to use over in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Mortenson has assured these students and their parents. "All of the money is used for supplies, for books…. Everything is used to help the kids out."6 In 2009, schoolchildren donated $1.7 million to Pennies for Peace. But CAI's total 2009 outlay for the things P4P is supposed to pay for—teachers' salaries, student scholarships, school supplies, basic operating expenses— amounted to a paltry $612,000. By comparison, in 2009 CAI spent more than $1 million to promote sales of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, and another $1.4 million to fly Mortenson around in chartered jets. Donors unknowingly picked up the tab for all of it.


CHAPTER 3) With the 41% of its money that's left over after promoting (and enriching Mortenson), CAI does some good – it has, in fact, built many schools and there's no doubting how much awareness Mortenson and his books have raised.  But Krakauer documents that the organization is extremely ineffective and poorly run, and thus hasn't done nearly as much good as Mortenson claims, due to his dreadful management style and, likely, deliberate actions against the many competent and committed people who worked for or served on the board of CAI.  Here are the key excepts from this chapter:


"Taking great personal risks to seed the region that gave birth to the Taliban with schools, Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa." This trope, from the introduction to Three Cups of Tea, is brandished by Mortenson as a central theme in all of his books and in most of his public utterances. The message he seeks to convey is that CAI schools are typically built in areas where fundamentalist madrassas are ubiquitous, and that his schools prevent the nearby madrassas from transforming kids into suicide bombers.


This simply is not true, and Mortenson knows it isn't true. Only a small fraction of his schools are found in locales that might be characterized as breeding grounds for terrorists. In Afghanistan, the majority of schools CAI has established are in areas where the Taliban has little influence or is simply nonexistent…


…CAI has become proficient at erecting schools off the beaten path, and Mortenson deserves praise for that. But filling those schools with effective teachers and actually educating children turn out to be much more difficult than constructing schoolrooms. On this front, Mortenson has delivered far less than he has professed…


The statement about students learning five languages is absolutely false, says a CAI staffer, "not even true for a single school." Most teachers, this staffer also reports, have never received any training from CAI.


Even more alarming is the fact that a significant number of CAI schools exist only on paper. The CAI website, for example, lists eight schools that have been completed in Afghanistan's Konar Province; during his Charlie Rose interview, Mortenson claimed he'd built eleven schools there. At that time, he had built only three schools in Konar; in the months since, he has built a fourth.


Many CAI schools that actually did get built, moreover, were later abandoned due to lack of CAI support. "Ghost schools," they're called by the disillusioned residents of Baltistan, where at least eighteen CAI buildings now stand empty. No one, not even Mortenson, knows exactly how many CAI projects exist as ghost schools, or simply never existed in the first place, because he has repeatedly subverted efforts by his Montana-based staff to track effectively how many schools have been built, how much each school actually costs, and how many schools are up and running. For the CAI staff to gather such crucial information, Mortenson would have to accurately account for how he spends CAI funds—something he has never been willing to do.


Instead, for years the CAI books have been cooked to order...


During Mortenson's Edutopia webinar in April 2010, someone asked him if he still visits Korphe. "I go to Pakistan and Afghanistan three times a year, maybe three to four months a year," Mortenson replied. "I try to go to every school every year." But according to CAI staffers, Mortenson hasn't been to Korphe—or anywhere else in Baltistan—since 2007, and he has never laid eyes on most of the CAI schools. Indeed, many CAI schools have never received a visit from any CAI employee…


Over the past sixteen years, he has disbursed millions of dollars in cash to CAI workers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and has supervised these employees erratically at best. Brief flurries of intense micromanagement have preceded lengthy periods with no guidance whatsoever. The program director in Kabul went a year without hearing from Mortenson. During one extended silence, Mortenson failed to contact Parvi for an even longer interval. Staff in the Montana office would take calls from Parvi pleading for instructions, begging for Greg to phone him.


Although Mortenson urged his foreign employees to use CAI funds frugally and not waste a single rupee, his deeds contradicted his words. When Mortenson traveled through Pakistan and Afghanistan, he often brought a Pelican equipment case holding bricks of hundred-dollar bills, and he spent huge sums capriciously, frequently on things that seemed to have little or nothing to do with schools. Chartered helicopters flew journalists and VIPs from one end of Pakistan to the other. Favors were asked of powerful individuals, who were rewarded lavishly for their help. When the American office staff implored Mortenson to document his expenses, Mortenson routinely ignored them. Adept at reading their mercurial boss, the overseas staff concluded that cash was abundant and bookkeeping was merely a contrivance done for appearance' sake. As long as Greg went home with inspiring tales to keep the donations flowing, they took for granted that no one would miss a few thousand dollars here and there.



'Three Cups of Tea,' Spilled

Published: April 20, 2011

One of the people I've enormously admired in recent years is Greg Mortenson. He's a former mountain climber who, after a failed effort to climb the world's second-highest mountain, K2, began building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In person, Greg is modest, passionate and utterly disorganized. Once he showed up half-an-hour late for a speech, clumping along with just one shoe — and then kept his audience spellbound with his tale of building peace through schools.

Greg has spent chunks of time traipsing through Afghanistan and Pakistan, constructing schools in impossible places, and he works himself half to death. Instead of driving around in a white S.U.V. with a security detail, he wears local clothes and takes battered local cars to blend in. He justly berates himself for spending too much time on the road and not enough with his wife, Tara Bishop, and their children, Amira and Khyber…

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