When historians write about the Weimarization of Washington in the Bush years, they will highlight the tawdry and divisive case involving the publication of Valerie Plame's CIA association and the unjust incarceration of reporter Judith Miller.

Crucial details of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's two-year investigation -- such as whether anyone in the Bush administration will be indicted for naming Plame or for lying under oath -- remain unclear.

But recent revelations by Miller and her newspaper, the New York Times, establish that this case centers on a fierce, previously subterranean political war in Washington over the powers of the CIA. Fitzgerald's inquiry has become a weather vane for corrosive changes in the political and journalistic cultures of the nation's capital.

Like the subplots and intrigues that divided post-World War I Berlin into hostile camps that reflexively rubbished any political idea, artistic creation or strategic proposal coming from another camp -- historian Walter Laqueur's "Weimar 1918-1933" describes that collective and destructive pigheadedness brilliantly -- the Fitzgerald investigation will be more important for its effect than for its cause.

This scandal's greatest importance lies, Weimar-like, in its ability to distract the public's attention, energy and commitment from more important questions. In this regard, Fitzgerald's investigation also resembles in spirit and effect the efforts to impeach Bill Clinton over his affair with a former intern.

Fitzgerald's most lasting legacy in this case will not be as a prosecutor. It will be as a censor. He has built his case around the discussion of possibly classified information -- Plame's name -- by government officials with journalists. He is sending a message -- one that President Bush fully endorses, even as it creates severe complications for him -- about the dangers of talking to journalists about national security matters.

The separate prosecution and conviction of Larry Franklin, a Defense Department official who was investigated for discussing classified information with journalists, two former officials for a pro-Israel lobby group, and an Israeli Embassy official, sent the same message.

An even larger threat to a reasoned and comprehensive debate on the American agenda is emerging from the misuse of the Plame affair as a weapon of political and bureaucratic warfare in Washington. The leak case is becoming one more stand-in for a "smoking gun" needed to show that Bush and Vice President Cheney knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that they based the war on lies.

This would deny that there were ever serious questions about Iraq's compliance with obligations to show the United Nations that it had destroyed those weapons, about whether the despot Saddam Hussein should be left in place without sanctions to continue to murder Kurds and Shiites, or about the role Iraq played in regional and global terrorism.

Those were serious questions at the time. Getting the WMD piece of it wrong is also a serious matter, which further complicates the grave problems that U.S. forces face in Iraq. But to reduce the uncertainties and conflicts of then to chants of "liar, liar" now is a juvenile attempt to rewrite or ignore history. It shifts attention from the policy changes and practical steps needed today.

No one should advocate the reckless or malicious disclosure of the names of CIA agents or other properly classified, sensitive information. But Fitzgerald has wielded his prosecutorial discretion like a bludgeon, with scant regard for the need for a balance of official candor and journalistic responsibility that serves the public good.

Something of the same unfortunately must be said of Miller and the Times, a newspaper that editorially calls for a standard of accountability in others that it did not meet in this case. Miller's account of agreeing to misidentify a source, her murky reference to a "security clearance" that she surely should not have had, and her failure to accept supervision from or to share vital information with her editors strike at the system of checks and balances that credible journalism requires. So does her editors' mystifying willingness to tolerate that behavior. But none of this was a crime.

Journalism traditionally is a collective enterprise, with its output shaped by the interaction of reporters, editors, publishers, anchors and others. But as blockbuster book contracts, mega-marketing campaigns and television's gigantic ad revenue gain a dominant role in the business, journalism has become much more entrepreneurial. It has also become more star-struck in what it covers and how it covers it.

For this scandal, the lingering question is a paraphrase on Howard Baker's Watergate query about the president three decades ago: What did the New York Times not know, and when did it not know it?

jimhoagland@washpost.com