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CNN Leaves Some Questions Unanswered About Box in FBI’s Hands With AM-Noriega Lawyers, Bjt

November 16, 1990

ATLANTA (AP) _ Cable News Network asserted again Friday the FBI wrongfully took a reporter’s box of materials on the Manuel Noriega case, but the network could not fully explain just how it ended up in the FBI’s hands.

The FBI said it would not analyze the box’s contents until officials answer CNN’s complaint.

At a packed news conference at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, CNN general counsel Steven Korn said the network has not seen a subpoena or search warrant for the box, which was taken by FBI agents Thursday after security officers removed it from the hotel room of reporter Marlene Fernandez earlier this week.

The hotel is housed in CNN’s headquarters complex, and Korn acknowledged that Turner Security, a CNN sister company, was aware of the box’s whereabouts before FBI agents removed it.

Asked why Turner Security didn’t call CNN about the box, Korn said, ″That’s a good question.″

But Korn denied that CNN arranged the box’s removal as a ruse.

″I am confident the general public will not be misled to think that this is a ruse, because I know you are all good reporters and you will accurately report that this is no such thing whatsoever,″ he said.

There was no word Friday on whether the box’s contents had anything to do with CNN’s legal battle over its attempt to air audio tapes of government wiretaps of Noriega.

Korn said he did not know whether the box’s contents could identify CNN’s sources on the Noriega story, but said ″we don’t believe our ability to pursue this story has been compromised.″

CNN President Tom Johnson said Friday he didn’t know if the recordings contained in the box were audio or video tapes, or if they were the phone calls between Noriega and his legal team.

″We just know that there were notes, work papers and tapes″ related to CNN’s coverage of the Noriega story, Johnson said.

William Hinshaw, head of the FBI’s Atlanta bureau, said Friday his agency agreed to seal the box. He said he would not examine its contents further until ordered to do so.

Hinshaw said he saw some cassettes in the box but didn’t know if they were Noriega tapes.

CNN would not tell reporters how to reach Ms. Fernandez, and an FBI agent also came up empty when he showed up at CNN’s Washington bureau looking for her.

Meanwhile, he said, CNN has protested the box’s removal ″at the highest level of the FBI″ and demanded its return. Korn maintained that while he has not seen the contents of the box, it was the ″lawful property″ of CNN and Ms. Fernandez.

″The property was not the property of the hotel. It was not the property of the FBI. It had not been abandoned,″ Korn said.

Korn would not answer reporters’ questions on how long the box was in Ms. Fernandez’ room, why it was there and not in the CNN newsroom a short walk away, and why the box apparently was picked up as abandoned property by security officers even though Ms. Fernandez had not checked out of her room.

CNN has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal judge’s order, issued last week, barring it from airing recordings of conversations between Noriega and the fallen Panamanian dictator’s legal team.

CNN’s reports disclosing the existence of the the government tapes prompted his lawyers to ask a judge to throw out the drug charges against him.

Korn said he had not received a response from Joseph Whitley, the U.S. attorney in Atlanta, to a letter CNN sent ″demanding the return of the tapes and that the materials in the box not be reviewed or duplicated.″

Whitley was out of town Friday. Messages left for his assistant, Ray Rukstele, were not immediately returned.

Korn said it wasn’t clear yet how the FBI was notified about the box. ″I don’t know who called who. There was a discussion between the FBI and Turner Security. It’s unclear to me who initiated the call.″

″The FBI did not initiate any call on that whatsoever. The call on that was initiated by Turner Security,″ said Dick Hildreth, assistant special agent in charge of the Atlanta FBI office. ″Until they called us, we didn’t know any such box existed.″

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