The right outcome, but not necessarily for the right reasons: that's what has happened to the complaints brought in the Federal Communications Commission by the CIA. The CIA had charged that ABC's "World News Tonight" distorted the news last fall when it broadcast charges that the CIA had tried to arrange the murder of Honolulu businessman and criminal defendant Ronald Rewald. ABC did broadcast such charges by the man who made them; two months later, when it could find no evidence to support them, it broadcast a retraction.

The FCC acted correctly in dismissing this complaint. For one thing, the CIA had no evidence that ABC deliberately distorted anything. More important, as an earlier FCC staff ruling put it, "The commission is not the national arbiter of the truth of news programming." Yet even as it ruled against the CIA, the FCC left the door open for similar complaints by government agencies. It declined to rule that government agencies could never bring such complaints.

The FCC may be right in saying that the law doesn't explicitly bar government agencies from filing complaints. But if in the 50-plus years of broadcast regulation it has never entered anyone's head that a government agency might do so, that's pretty good evidence that the Congress that wrote the law never intended to authorize such a dangerous procedure.

If it doesn't sound dangerous to you, consider for a moment this question: why has the CIA brought this case at all, after a retraction was broadcast? Perhaps the agency has no intention to intimidate ABC and other broadcast license holders. But it can be assumed to know that a successful complaint could cast some doubt over the renewal of the exceedingly valuable broadcast licenses that ABC holds.

Allowing one agency of government to haul a broadcast news organization before another (one capable of exacting huge financial costs) is a formula, intended or not, to intimidate the press and dry up the free flow of news. It is not the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.