Tapes of the jailhouse phone calls of a deposed Central American dictator who is awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges wind up in the hands of a network television reporter. Defying the dictator's lawyers and despite a federal judge's order, the network broadcasts one of the tapes. FBI agents, assigned to investigate, stumble onto the reporter's translations of the tapes in a hotel's lost and found.

This occasionally madcap melodrama, complete with a television crew chasing the FBI agents through downtown Atlanta, could be the plot of a movie for one of media mogul Ted Turner's entertainment properties.

But it has thrust Turner's Cable News Network into the middle of a far-reaching constitutional struggle between the news media and the criminal justice system -- in which the U.S. Supreme Court has so far allowed, for the first time, a court ruling barring the media from disseminating news.

The conflict between the First Amendment freedoms of the press and the Bill of Rights protections for criminal defendants began with the enterprise reporting of Marlene Fernandez, a Washington-based reporter with CNN's Spanish-language network, Telemundo. She obtained what CNN says are tape recordings of deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega's telephone calls made from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Miami, where he is awaiting trial.

Most of Noriega's telephone calls were to Panama, where he talked with his political supporters. Federal prisoners are informed that correctional officials may monitor their calls, with one exception: those in which a defendant says he is discussing defense strategy with his lawyers.

In reviewing the tapes, CNN correspondents, including John Camp, noticed that at least one of the calls seemed to include Noriega talking about two potential witnesses with an investigator in the office of his attorney, Frank Rubino.

If the federal government was recording attorney-client conversations, Camp reasoned, that left open the possibility that federal prosecutors on the Noriega case might be getting inside information about Noriega's defense strategy. To CNN, that made them newsworthy.

Thus began the saga of the Noriega tapes. It grew messier in the days that followed the broadcast, taking it beyond the issue of "prior restraint" of the press and into the equally sensitive question of the power of the government to seize a reporter's work materials.

On Nov. 16, one week after the fateful decision to broadcast despite a U.S. District Court restraining order, the FBI was investigating how CNN got the government's tape recordings of the telephone conversations, which the agency viewed as stolen government property.

Shortly before noon, the head of the Atlanta FBI office, William Hinshaw, was told that two of his agents had obtained -- under disputed circumstances -- a box containing CNN videotape cassettes. One cassette, he said, was clearly marked "Noriega Tapes."

Normally such evidence would be immediately inventoried. But given the circumstances, Hinshaw decided the legal issues were hopelessly tangled. He ordered that the box's contents be sealed in a second closed box, wrapped in evidence tape and stored in an FBI safe -- and remain there, unexamined by FBI agents, until a judge decided what to do next.

Within minutes after the FBI agents returned to their office with the box, their lobby was crowded with CNN reporters and lawyers who were demanding its return, adding yet another issue to be resolved in the next few weeks.

There are still numerous unanswered questions about the controversy: How were the tapes used by the U.S. government? Where did CNN obtain the tapes? The network won't say. Noriega's defense lawyer has said they were given by prison authorities to the State Department, which passed them on to the government of Panama, which leaked them to the CNN reporter. Neither government -- U.S. or Panamanian -- has commented publicly on that. Federal prison officials have asserted that their recordings were proper.

CNN officials, as well, say they believe everything the network did was proper.

CNN President Tom Johnson said that when he learned the network had the tapes, he decided the story required special handling. He said he directed that a staff of senior CNN reporters and producers, including Camp, team up with Fernandez and that CNN lawyers be involved in all major decisions.

Camp said he went looking for an expert legal opinion and on Tuesday, Nov. 6, played one of the recordings for former assistant U.S. attorney Richard Gregorie in Miami. He said Gregorie told him the conversation seemed be the kind that is traditionally protected by the attorney-client privilege.

That afternoon, Camp visited Rubino's office and played for Rubino the portion of the tape containing Noriega's conversation with the investigator. Rubino freely discussed the conversation on camera, Camp said, and confirmed that the voices were those of his translator and his most famous client. Rubino repeated the identification on camera.

"We play the tape for Rubino," Camp said. "He responds with a high level of shock, gives us his comments pertaining to the tape." With this confirmation safely on tape, the CNN crew packed up and returned to Atlanta to begin editing.

The next day, Nov. 7, according to Camp, Rubino telephoned from Miami to say that he did not want his comments about the recording played on the air. According to Camp, Rubino told him, "If you run this story. . . I have effectively waived my attorney-client privilege, by listening to that tape and identifying it."

Camp said Rubino told him he would seek an injunction to block the broadcast. That same day, at approximately 5:30 p.m., CNN officials learned that Rubino had indeed filed a motion for such a ban and that a hearing was set for the following morning before U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler, who is presiding over the Noriega case, in the Miami federal courthouse.

Suddenly, CNN felt it had a deadline. The network decided to broadcast its news story about the tapes before the hearing so there could be no possibility of interference by Hoeveler.

To accomplish this, according to Camp and others, the CNN reporters, producers and lawyers worked through the night at the CNN studios in Atlanta. Even Johnson stayed most of the evening, sitting in on key discussions about script.

"It was buttoned down from all sides," he said. "There was documentation, there was legal clearance, there was script approval. It was a solid, accurate piece."

The report aired on the network's 7 a.m. news program -- not the taped conversation directly, but a broadcast of Rubino listening to the barely audible tape and confirming that it contained an attorney-client conversation.

Later that same day -- Nov. 8 -- Hoeveler issued his order barring further telecast of Noriega's privileged attorney-client conversations and demanding that CNN give him the tapes.

As the day wore on, CNN's pride in its story was hurt by the muted reaction from other news organizations. Other reporters could not make out the indistinct recording, Camp said, and were asking, "Where's the beef?"

The next morning's New York Times reported that Assistant Attorney General Robert S. Mueller "denied that the Government had improperly taped conversations and insisted that reports of improper taping were false."

CNN officials say they decided to broadcast a second report with more of Noriega's statements in order to establish that the taping was extensive and and possibly improper. "In a way, the burden is being put back on this newsgathering organization as far as its reporting and its assessment of government impropriety," Johnson said.

The network hoped the second broadcast would underscore the "possible governmental misconduct" in the affair, without directly violating Hoeveler's order. The order had banned the broadcast of privileged attorney-client conversations; CNN's lawyers reasoned that Rubino had waived this privilege with his on-camera comments and that the order thus did not cover this single conversation.

Minutes before the broadcast, Johnson said he sat in a conference with nearly a dozen lawyers and news executives and posed aloud the question they had debated for much of the day: Could CNN legally broadcast a report that might be perceived as defying a federal judge's temporary restraining order?

"I sat around a room, which included the best legal minds we could assemble . . . and the reporters and editors and I asked the question: Do we have the right to broadcast this? And the answer was yes, without reservation."

"They did not take lightly the fact that we had a federal order not to run the thing," Camp said. ". . . . This was a serious discussion that was made by some top attorneys, who had discussed this in great detail. They had been going at this tooth and nail for 24 hours. And basically they knew that they were making one of the toughest First Amendment decisions they had ever made."

The second broadcast, on Nov. 9, included a full airing of the conversation that Rubino had already discussed on camera. The report emphasized the government's role. "A CNN source says at least one member of the {prosecution} team has been advised of the content of many tapes, including at least four attorney-client discussions," said the script.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Miami declined to comment on the CNN assertion. "We have said in open court that the prosecution team has not seen or heard the tapes in question," she said.

By late afternoon on Nov. 9, the CNN reporters and producers were told that an FBI investigation was underway into how they got the tapes. "The very first thing we did was secure all our material," said CNN producer Martin Koughan. CNN lawyers briefed the journalists on what to say if contacted by FBI agents.

At some point, however, Fernandez decided to gather up material she considered "nothing that was really important." This included, she said, "three or four" Beta videocassettes containing "air checks" of the broadcast reports and a computer printout of Spanish-to-English translations of Noriega's telephone conversations. "We had taken specific tapes, and we had transcribed them into the computer and we just got a computer printout," said Camp.

Fernandez put the printout and tapes in a box and took it to her room at the Omni Hotel, which is part of the CNN complex in Atlanta.

As the tension mounted over the conflict with the government, Fernandez grew anxious about telephone calls to her room. "There was a particular mysterious call that set off the three-room caper," said Koughan.

CNN attorney Reta Peery was assigned to accompany Fernandez. Koughan said he decided to have her change rooms at the hotel. Using his Diners Club card, he rented three additional rooms. "There was a dummy room," he said. "There was a room for {Fernandez} and a room Reta stayed in."

On Nov. 12, however, the CNN group -- Koughan, Camp, Fernandez and Peery -- decided to leave Atlanta. According to the CNN staff, their discussions with the Omni front desk were confusing. "Reta settled the bill on my card," Koughan said.

Fernandez said she thought she was still checked into Room 1008, and thus left behind clothes, shampoo and the box of videotapes. The Omni staff thought otherwise. Housekeeping cleaned the room and confiscated the property, and 1008 was rented to another guest.

For two days the box of tapes and printout was stored as abandoned property at the hotel.

Meanwhile, on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 14, a teletype message from the Miami FBI office arrived in the Atlanta FBI office, requesting that an agent interview a CNN staff member in connection with the Noriega tapes.

The next morning FBI Agent Richard Manauzzi arrived for work dressed in casual clothes; he expected to spend the day conducting a surveillance on an unrelated case. The FBI desk supervisor had the Miami teletype, however, and asked Manauzzi to follow up with a phone call. For Atlanta "it was a minor case," Hinshaw said.

The FBI occasionally conducts investigations involving crimes against the various Atlanta-based businesses of CNN founder Ted Turner, and the agency has developed a close working relationship with Joseph Shirley, the director of Turner Security. "There is a lot of interchange," Hinshaw said. Shirley declined to comment.

Turner Security operates from the same complex that contains CNN headquarters and the Omni Hotel.

Manauzzi telephoned Turner Security at approximately 9 a.m., according to Hinshaw, and told a secretary that he wanted to arrange an interview with a CNN employee concerning the theft of government property. He mentioned the CNN Noriega tapes. Then, Manauzzi went out on his unrelated surveillance.

At approximately 10:45, according to Hinshaw, Manauzzi's beeper went off. There was a message from Shirley, Hinshaw said, to the effect that: " 'There's a box that's been here. It was left by one of the reporters. Would you be interested?' "

Hinshaw said the FBI agents had not anticipated such cooperation, but were happy to have it. "Essentially we are reporters," he said. "You never know until you ask, and it's amazing what people will tell you."

Manauzzi left his stakeout and asked another agent, Sally Heintz, to accompany him to the hotel as a witness. Soon they were standing in the executive office of the Omni Hotel, in the company of Shirley and Omni security director Charles Owens. "I had the box," Owens said. "And I showed him {Manauzzi} the box."

When Manauzzi looked inside, Hinshaw said, he saw the videotapes. "He looks at the things and says 'Oh God,' because right on the top of them is something that says 'Noriega Tapes,' " Hinshaw said.

Manauzzi decided that the FBI agents in Miami would want to examine the contents of the box. Owens said he viewed the material as abandoned property, because the rooms had been vacated and the bill had been paid.

Meanwhile, the CNN crew had returned to Atlanta. Fernandez had discovered her room occupied. She said she tried and failed to recover her possessions from the hotel staff. Distressed, she sought help from Peery and CNN producer John Lane.

Thus it was that at the very moment on Nov. 15 when agents Manauzzi and Heintz were being shown the box of tapes, Lane and Peery were in the lobby of the Omni Hotel demanding the return of Fernendez's material. Soon they were invited into the executive offices, where they encountered the two FBI agents and the two security directors.

"I said that we were with CNN, and one of our employees, and we were there to reclaim her coat and other things," Lane said. Peery asked if the agents had a search warrant. "They didn't have a search warrant," Lane said. "They took her material. I'm there saying 'give it to me.' "

Finally, Peery asked for time to consult with CNN general counsel Steve Korn. "I said out of courtesy will you wait for a response," Lane said. While Peery was making the call to Korn, however, Manauzzi and Heintz decided to leave with the box. "The guy after awhile signed something and said, 'Well, we're going to leave now,' " Lane said.

What Manauzzi signed, Hinshaw said, was a receipt for abandoned property. Hinshaw said the agents were given a computer printout of the hotel bill for the three rooms showing that they were vacated on Nov. 12 -- leaving the ownership of the box in doubt. Koughan insists otherwise: "Our documentation shows that 1008 was not checked out."

As Manauzzi and Heintz walked out of the building, Lane summoned a CNN camera crew. They followed the two agents as they walked with the box the several blocks to the downtown federal building.

Hinshaw had it sealed and placed in a safe. Later, the government obtained a search warrant that will allow it to examine the contents of the box. "The sooner it's out of Atlanta, Georgia," said Hinshaw, "the better it will be with me."

Last week, CNN attorneys -- having failed to get an appeals court or the Supreme Court to overturn the order barring broadcast of the tapes -- turned over copies to a federal magistrate in Miami who will review them and then report to Judge Hoeveler whether they contain additional attorney-client conversations.

He will then have to consider whether the temporary restraining order should become permanent and whether CNN was in contempt for broadcasting the tapes. That could begin another round of appeals.