The next narrative: "no smoking gun" in emails Clinton decided to release

Ed already highlighted some of the early news coming out of the first round of Hillary Clinton emails released by the State Department and there will no doubt be plenty more to come. But as the media covers these new “revelations” (such as they are) there seems to be a fresh narrative emerging. I noticed a few examples of this in the last 24 hours, one of them being the early morning show on CNN today, where weekend anchor Christie Paul was asking yet another guest for commentary about some of the Benghazi news which was showing up in the formerly private messages.

The question at hand involved the lack of a “smoking gun” in what we were learning. That was a curious thing to say on a couple of levels. To wrap our heads around this, here’s the New York Post’s coverage of the story they were discussing. It involves an earlier incident when then-envoy and later Ambassador Chris Stevens was so dismayed by the lack of security surrounding his team that he almost fled the country.

An email sent to the then-secretary of state’s private account with “high” importance described the shelling and snipers surrounding Stevens, who was then serving as special envoy.

“The situation in [the Libyan town of] Ajdabiyah has worsened to the point where Stevens is considering departure from Benghazi,” said an April 10, 2011, email obtained Thursday by The New York Times.

“The envoy’s delegation is currently doing a phased checkout . . . He will monitor the situation to see if it deteriorates further, but no decision has been made about departure. He will wait 2-3 more hours, then revisit the decision on departure.”

Ultimately, Stevens stayed and became ambassador to Libya after the death of dictator Moammar Khadafy.

The “no smoking gun” narrative quickly spread to other outlets.

The messages appear to contain no smoking guns that support GOP allegations that Clinton directly brushed off requests and warnings from staff in Libya about the need for more security at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi.

First, it’s rather shocking that Hillary Clinton decided to include this particular email at all. (And I will grudgingly give her a bit of credit for doing so.) This is not a message devoid of meaning in the larger Benghazi tale. If the final failures which resulted in the death of Stevens and the others, along with the subsequent meltdown in security and stability around the compound, were the true problem, but Secretary Clinton maintains that nobody could have foreseen things going that badly off the rails, this information casts her defense in doubt to say the least. She was obviously aware that better security was needed, but nothing was done to properly address the deficit and that fault for that lies squarely on her shoulders.

But I’ll agree that while this certainly looks bad, it’s not the “smoking gun” which congressional investigators have suspected is lying at the bottom of this mess. But was anyone expecting to find such a poison pill? As journalists rush to examine and analyze this first round of emails, there’s an important bit of recent history which is being blithely ignored in the coverage. Those aren’t all the emails. No matter what you find, we are never, ever going to know if it’s the full story because you’re only seeing the information which the subject of the investigation chose to hand over.

The phrase “smoking gun” is an old one which is frequently attributed to a Sherlock Holmes story from the late 1800s. The meaning is clear and the discovery of such a damning piece of evidence is always the result of clever good guys ferreting out the details which the bad guys would like to see left in the shadows. The bank robber rarely walks up to the cop on the beat, hands him a still warm revolver and says, “Excuse me, but I believe you’re looking for this?”

The emails which are now coming to light merit coverage and I’m not saying we shouldn’t examine them. But context is critical in any thorough journalistic effort, and any report on these documents which doesn’t include the fact that we’re only seeing the cards Hillary Clinton chose to show us is weak tea at best.