The Federal Communications Commission staff yesterday rejected a CIA complaint against ABC News filed after the network reported charges of CIA complicity in illegal activities, including an alleged plot to assassinate the head of a Honolulu investment firm.
The FCC decision said the Central Intelligence Agency had failed to provide the requisite evidence for its charges of "intentional news distortion" and had failed to make a case that the network violated the Fairness Doctrine.
James C. McKinney, chief of the FCC's mass media bureau, held in a nine-page ruling that the CIA's complaint, filed Nov. 21, was insufficient to trigger a commission inquiry or to justify sanctions against the network.
The CIA's complaint was the first filed by a government agency seeking to penalize a broadcaster. The CIA had asked the FCC to conduct an investigation and take the controversy into account when ABC's radio and television station licenses come up for renewal.
The CIA has 30 days to appeal to the full five-member commission for reconsideration. Agency spokesman Kathy Pherson said yesterday that CIA lawyers were studying the ruling.
Some groups, including the Media Action Project, had contended that a government agency ought not be able to ask the FCC for redress, but McKinney rejected that argument in a footnote. He said, "Neither our news distortion policy nor the Fairness Doctrine limits the filing of complaints to any specific entities or individuals."
The network reported last September on "ABC World News Tonight" that former prison guard Scott Barnes said he had been hired by the CIA and asked to kill Honolulu investment counselor Ronald R. Rewald.
Currently under indictment for fraud, perjury and tax evasion, Rewald has contended that his bankrupt firm was a front for a wide range of CIA covert actions, including illegal arms shipments to Taiwan.
The CIA, which has conceded "a slight involvement" with Rewald's firm, contended that ABC aired its broadcasts without any attempt to verify the allegations and "knowingly produced a program which was replete with false statements."
ABC News announced on the evening the complaint was filed that it had "now concluded that Barnes' charge cannot be substantiated," but the CIA was not satisfied and continued to press its case.