Reactions from prominent journalists and authors to the controversy surrounding Greg Mortenson ranged from reserved judgment to belief that there are fabrications in the book “Three Cups of Tea.”
On a “60 Minutes” expose Sunday, author Jon Krakauer and some of the people featured in the book claimed that some stories in “Three Cups” aren’t completely factual. Questions were also raised about the practices of Mortenson’s charitable organization, the Central Asia Institute. Publisher Viking said it will review the book.
Mortenson responded in an interview with Outside Magazine, saying his co-author, David Oliver Relin, took literary license with the stories.
Appearing on CNN Monday night, Alex Heard, the editorial director of Outside who interviewed Mortenson before the “60 Minutes” piece aired, told Soledad O’Brien that Mortenson had answers for the questions about his initial visit to the Korphe village — which he says he stumbled upon after failing to reach the K2 summit and in which he promised to build a school — and his claim that he was kidnapped by the Taliban. “Whether they’re going to prove satisfactory, I think it’s too early to tell,” Heard said.
In the interview, Mortenson admits that there was a “compression of events” concerning his visits to Korphe, a village in the Baltistan region of Pakistan. In a written answer Mortenson provided on the CAI Web site, he says:
It is important to know that Balti people have a completely different notion about time. ... For example, “now” can mean immediately or sometime over the course of a whole long season. The concept of past and future is rarely of concern. Often tenses are left out of discussion, although everyone knows what is implied. And if a person is a day or week late or early it doesn’t matter. The Balti consider the western notion of time quite amusing.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has written about Mortenson’s schools, tweeted, “I find the Greg Mortenson story pretty heartbreaking. I saw a couple of his schools in Afghanistan; they were terrific.” On CNN, Kristof said he’s seen some of the “truly impressive” schools in Afghanistan firsthand and that the public “should reserve judgment to some degree.”
Heard echoed these sentiments when he said, “He has done a lot of great work over there, and I think we should be careful not to throw all of that out because there are some questions being raised.”
CNN correspondent Peter Bergen said he believes there are “fabrications” in the book, including Mortenson’s story of being kidnapped by the Taliban. Bergen personally knows one of the men Mortenson claimed was a kidnapper, and also said the Taliban didn’t exist in that part of Pakistan at the time. Photos of Mortenson holding a gun with the alleged kidnappers also raise doubts in Bergen’s mind.
Mortenson responded to this on the CAI Web site:
Yes, I was detained for eight days in Waziristan in 1996. 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.
Bergen said he believes Mortenson’s placing the blame for inaccuracies on his co-author is not fair. Heard said Mortenson didn’t completely pass the blame in the interview, but did say he didn’t fully understand the non-fiction writing process. “It’s not a good enough answer,” Heard said.
Rima Al-Sabah, wife of Kuwait’s ambassador to Washington, told the Post’s Reliable Source she’s “shocked.” “I hope that the allegations are untrue,” she added. Al-Sabah raised $2 million last year for the CAI and honored Mortenson at the Kuwait-America Foundation dinner.
The CAI’s board responded to “60 Minutes” on its Web site here.
Watch the CNN interview below: