Q&A: New York Times Iraq reporter Michael S. Schmidt

On finding classified documents in the trash, and transitioning from the sports beat

Several weeks ago, New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt, a foreign correspondent in the newspaper’s Baghdad bureau, went looking for US military trailers in a local junkyard. Schmidt was trying to find a new way to tell the story of American withdrawal from Iraq—and he found one when he stumbled upon a binder of classified military documents that included testimony from Marines about the 2005 Haditha massacre, an episode in which American Marines killed 26 Iraqi civilians. Schmidt told the incredible story behind the story at the Times’s At War blog. CJR caught up with him last week to learn a little bit more about his junkyard scoop.

How long have you been in Iraq?

I started coming to Iraq with the Times in January. Before that I was a sports reporter.

Why did you go looking for these trailers? What did you expect to find?

We were trying to find a different way to tell the story of American withdrawal by seeing what stuff had turned up from American bases in Iraq and what kind of physical legacy the military left behind.

We just knew there were trailers from American bases, that they were at this junkyard and a guy was trying to sell them.

How did this lead to the documents?

We went out to find the trailers at this junkyard and we couldn’t find it. We got really lost and I was basically saying ‘Let’s turn back.’ My security team said no. The next thing I know they’ve figured it out and we’re there.

When we got to the junkyard, there was an Iraqi man who let us in and walked us through the trailers—there was interesting stuff, but nothing incredibly revealing about the war. On the way out, I was walking past this fire pit that had trash around it and I saw a piece of paper that said “testimony” on it and I thought, ‘Woah, what is this?’

I picked it up and started going through all this trash. I found a binder with lots of pages in it and classified maps from the military. The guy let us take them and he told us he’d been burning dozens and dozens of these binders over the past few weeks to make his masgouf, which is this Iraqi delicacy, smoked carp.

Why was the attendant burning the documents? Did he have orders to do so?

The guy was just a junkyard attendant. He didn’t have orders to do that at all. The military didn’t know the documents were there, he had just figured out these were documents from the Americans and the best thing to do would be to burn them. At same time he let me take the documents.

I just think that he was concerned about being identified, because he thought the Americans would come after him if they knew he had given us this.

What were you thinking at the time?

It was really weird. We put the documents in the trunk and I was just trying to think what could be in there. I know the military creates a lot of paperwork, so I thought it was likely just bureaucratic stuff. But then again, who knows?

We came back to the office and spread it out on the table and started going through it with my colleagues here and realized it was stuff about Haditha. It was just weird, shocking, that of all the things that you could find in the trash in a junkyard in Baghdad, it would be classified military documents about this incident in which all these civilians were killed by Marines.

What about the documents was most striking to you?

The candor of the Marines in describing the atmosphere in Anbar province at the height of the insurgency was particularly revealing—hearing it from them, in their own words, and knowing that they thought what they were saying was confidential makes their candor particularly interesting.

What is new about these documents? What do they add to what we already knew about Haditha?

I think the documents do more to tell the story of being a Marine in an almost impossible situation—where they had insurgents that were mixing in with civilians and were terrified for their safety and trying to survive, but also attack an enemy that was extremely difficult to find.

What was the reaction of the Americans like when you informed them you’d found their classified documents in a junkyard?

The military officials were very surprised and concerned that as they were leaving, there were classified documents floating around the country that had been found. They were particularly concerned about the maps—that they may give away information that would jeopardize their security as they leave. The maps showed how high helicopters should fly and the route between bases. Another one showed how far radar extended from the bases in Baghdad.

What has been the response in general?

I’ve received a lot of reader e-mail from people that said they thought the story provided them a different way to understand what was going on in the war at that time. I also received some e-mail from people who were critical of the fact that we decided to publish this information.

Was there much debate about what and whether to publish this information?

We had discussions with lawyers at the Times and the foreign editors. We published the information that we thought would fit. The maps were not published—the military was particularly concerned about us publishing the maps.

The biggest challenge was going through the documents and figuring out what the story was—what was new and different that we should include in the story.

Was it difficult to report this story having just arrived in January? How did you get up to speed?

I knew about the incident at Haditha and more importantly about the role Haditha and Abu Ghraib played this year in trying to work out a deal to keep soldiers here after the end of the year. Ultimately the Iraqis balked and said they wouldn’t give immunity protection to American soldiers because of incidents like this that are seared in the minds of Iraqi people.

People ask me, “What’s going to happen in Iraq going forward?” I tell them I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on now. To understand the internal workings of Iraqi politics and the Iraqi psyche is difficult. It’s a big challenge.

How have you found Iraq?

The Times has a really great set up here with great Iraqi journalists and American colleagues, it makes functioning in this kind of environment much easier. I’m grateful to be here at this historic time and be working for a place that has the resources to allow investigative journalism to go on in a war zone.

How does your reporting in Iraq compare to your previous work as a sports reporter?

I did a bunch of investigative stuff when I was a sports reporter—it’s obviously different than this, but one big similarity is dealing with pushback. I dealt with a lot of pushback from people in Major League Baseball and the players’ union on the steroid stories I did. They really push back hard. So when it came time to deal with the military I had significant experience with people trying to prevent me from writing things. I’m glad I had that experience, as it gave me some comfort and confidence in dealing with the military.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.