MEANWHILE, in Atlanta, another aspect of the CNN case has been playing out: how CNN obtained the tapes and the conduct of government agents in retrieving some of them.

Marlene Fernandez, the CNN reporter who broke the story, checked into the Omni Hotel in Atlanta a week ago Monday, but left her room Tuesday. When she returned Wednesday, she found that the room had been given to other guests, and her belongings -- some clothing and a box purportedly containing documents and tapes -- had been removed by the housekeeping staff and given to hotel security. It is not clear why Miss Fernandez left valuables behind for a couple of days, or why the hotel believed she had checked out. CNN had apparently taken a block of rooms, using the corporate rather than individual names.

Next, in a surprising move, the security office called the FBI and volunteered the information that it was in custody of a box the agents might be interested in. Two FBI men went to the hotel, and, while the transfer was taking place, Miss Fernandez and a CNN lawyer appeared, inquired whether the FBI had a warrant and demanded the return of the box. No warrant is needed to search abandoned material, but CNN contends its reporter never intended to abandon the box. The agents, believing it contained stolen government property, sealed the box, and have placed it in a safe until the Justice Department decides what should be done.

While it would certainly have been outrageous for the FBI to have searched Miss Fernandez' room and taken items without a warrant, no one now contends this happened. It would also have been wrong for hotel security to have seized the material for the FBI, knowing that the room had not been vacated. Again, this charge has not been made, but one would think that common sense and customer relations, if not the Constitution, would have moved the security people to return the box rather than calling in the FBI. Their decision is additionally puzzling because the hotel and CNN are both owned by Turner Broadcasting.

If the government decides to prosecute someone for theft of government property in connection with the Noriega tapes, a court would have to decide whether the FBI's taking of the box breached Fourth Amendment standards that would bar the use of any seized material at the trial. The admissibility question is unlikely to arise, but other questions remain. Did hotel officials breach an obligation to a guest? Did the FBI properly take custody of the material? And what is in the box, anyway? The first is a private question to be settled between Miss Fernandez and the hotel. The others are questions of public interest and should be addressed by the Justice Department without delay.