THE FCC has done the CIA a favor, although the CIA may not see it that way immediately.

The Federal Communications Commission's staff has now rejected the complaint that the CIA had launched against the American Broadcasting Company and its television stations, accusing them of "deliberate news distortion." ABC had run a news program in September charging that the CIA had attempted to organize the assassination of a Honolulu financial figure named Ronald Rewald. The CIA denied it, vehemently and repeatedly. Two months later ABC acknowledged, on the air, that it had gone back to its source and could not substantiate the charge. But the CIA wanted more than that. It wanted the FCC to hold its own investigation, arrive at its own findings and take them into account when ABC's broadcasting licenses came up for renewal.

In response, the FCC has issued a staff ruling that "the commission is not the national arbiter of the 'truth' of news programming. Nor is the commission prepared to judge the wisdom, accuracy, or adequacy with which particular news coverage may have been handled on the air." Beyond that, it observed that the CIA had offered no evidence that ABC was guilty of deliberate distortion. Complaint denied.

If the CIA is wise, it will leave matters there. It has already won its argument with ABC over the facts of the dispute. The system worked. The CIA objected that the charge was false, and pressed its objection. ABC didn't respond as fast as the CIA would have liked, but it responded. No news organization likes to acknowledge that it can't support a charge, particularly a charge as dramatic as that one. But ABC did it, and that leaves the story dead as far as just about everybody -- including just about everybody in the news business -- is concerned.

If the CIA is not wise, it can appeal the FCC staff ruling to the commission itself and beyond it to the courts. There the CIA would presumably be seeking not only vindication, which it has already obtained, but more substantial and damaging punishment. That would force First Amendment questions of fundamental importance that the FCC staff ruling leaves in abeyance. It is disquieting that the CIA does not seem fully to comprehend the implications of a government agency -- not to mention a secret agency -- going to another government agency in retaliation against a critic.

The FCC evidently doesn't see what's wrong with it, either. The staff ruling went out of its way to say that there's nothing in the FCC's policy to prevent another government agency from bringing this kind of a complaint to it. There may be nothing in the FCC's policy, but there's some pretty starchy language in the Constitution that has consistently been interpreted to mean that the government cannot punish criticism. If the courts should permit any weakening of that principle, much more than television licenses will be at risk.