Given the enormous disaster of the U.S. onslaught on Iraq, the monstrous suffering engendered by the occupation, the violence around the world that this same occupation has spawned, how strange it is that the counter-attack on the Bush administration should have come most effectively in the form of the Plame scandal.

Millions of words have now been written about the outing of Valerie Plame, CIA-tasked wife of Joe Wilson, who undercut the claims of the Bush administration that Saddam's Iraq was on the edge of having nuclear capability. A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has now labored for months. A female reporter on the staff of the New York Times, Judith Miller, is in jail for not answering Fitzgerald's questions. Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove, stands in danger of indictment for lying to Fitzgerald. He already has been exposed as a liar.

These are all big events, yet after all these months I find it hard to understand what the fuss is all about and to take the Plame scandal seriously.

Supposedly Valerie Plame was exposed as a CIA employee as a reprisal by the White House against her husband. But I've never fully understood how this exposure was meant to damage Wilson.

In left-wing circles, at least when there was a serious left, it was damaging to one's credibility to be called "a CIA agent."

But we're not dealing with left-wing circles here. We're dealing with right-wing circles where employment by the CIA is deemed honorable and a badge of pride. Wilson, for all his popularity among liberals these days, is a right-winger who endorsed the attack on Iraq. Why wouldn't the disclosure of his wife Valerie's employer have enhanced his standing?

Again, why was it supposed to be shamefully discrediting to Wilson that his wife put him up as a suitable person to go to Niger to investigate charges that that country was exporting yellowcake uranium to Iraq?

The answer to such questions is in. Wilson wasn't damaged. The White House maimed itself. The outing of Plame was no big deal, and wasn't even technically a crime until Bush Sr. pushed through the Agents' Protection Act as a reprisal against lefties who truly sought to damage the CIA by exposing its undercover operatives. The scandal has mostly shown how truly stupid big-time operators like Rove and his colleagues in the White House can be.

At the level of substance the Bush administration should be reeling in the face of savage attack for the utter failure of its mission in Iraq. Yet in the American media the scale of that failure is muffled by prudent reporters and editors.

The fact that America faces as big a national humiliation as it endured in Vietnam is not one much discussed. The antiwar movement is limping along, and the Democratic Party is desperate to be seen as a "loyal" opposition. Many of its leaders call not for an end to the war but a war fought with more troops, with greater efficiency.

So the Plame scandal becomes the focus of attack, because the real reasons are deemed too contentious to be raised in public. In the same way, 30 years ago, Nixon was never impeached for a secret, illegal war on Cambodia but because it turned out he had not been truthful about a cover-up of political mischief at home.

This is often the way with scandals. There is much in conventional political life that cannot be said, because to say anything substantive would be to undermine those unstated non-aggression pacts that buttress the ruling elites.

In the United States, among the elites, there is a non-aggression pact about Israel and the consequences of U.S. sponsorship of that nation in all its enterprises, many of them shameful. The topic simply cannot be raised. The same is true of many other vital aspects of the nation's affairs: trade, nuclear policy, the supervision of the Federal Reserve and so forth.

By contrast, the Plame scandal is something the elites can happily chew upon, even though I'm sure that most ordinary citizens long ceased to take an interest in the intricacies of the scandal. The worst that can happen is that Rove will have to resign; he may even be indicted. She may languish in prison now, but Judy Miller has been made a martyr to freedom of the press, an ironic consequence, given that with her stories fomenting the attack on Iraq she disgraced the name of journalism.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.