The Cable News Network said yesterday that the FBI had seized confidential material turned up in the network's inquiry into possible government misconduct in the prosecution of deposed Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega on drug charges.
The network charged that two bureau agents seized materials that Omni Hotel employees had improperly removed from a room occupied by one of its reporters at the Atlanta hotel, part of a complex that also houses CNN offices.
The network said the box of materials, including tape recordings, was seized without a warrant and over the objections of a CNN lawyer. The network demanded that the materials be returned. It also filed protests with the FBI and the U.S. attorney in Atlanta.
It was not clear whether the recordings included those of conversations between General Noriega and his legal team, which had been obtained by CNN and are the subject of a legal battle. The government-taped recordings are of General Noriega speaking from jail in Miami with his lawyers.
The general's lawyers have argued that broadcasting the tapes would violate the legal rights of their client.
Federal law enforcement officials said last night that the FBI discovered the existence of the materials by "happenstance" and not as part of a larger investigation or during a search of the reporter's room.
A CNN official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the recordings were not the taped conversations between General Noriega and his lawyers. "The FBI did not get the main course," he said.
Earlier yesterday, in papers submitted to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the Supreme Court, lawyers for CNN asked for permission to continue broadcasting the tapes, which they had pledged not to play pending the outcome of court proceedings.
The network alleged that it was being "gagged for being the messenger" of misconduct by the federal government.
Justice Kennedy referred CNN's appeal to the whole court, which asked lawyers for the federal government and for General Noriega to file briefs by noon tomorrow.
One administration official said the materials seized had been left by Marlene Fernandez, the CNN reporter whom the network has credited with obtaining the recordings of General Noriega's conversations.
The official said Ms. Fernandez, a reporter with CNN's Spanish language service, left the materials behind when she checked out of the hotel Monday.
He said security officials at the hotel then called the FBI to tell them about the materials.
However, a senior executive of Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN, said the hotel staff mistakenly thought Ms. Fernandez had vacated her room when they removed her clothes and a box of materials.
Either hotel security or Turner security then contacted the FBI, which said it was attempting to recover stolen property, the Turner executive said.