The visit, and the publicity accorded it by US officials, suggests a desire by Washington to stake out a clear presence in a region once Moscow's exclusive preserve but now among the most volatile bits of the fragmented Soviet empire.
There was no official word on reports that the dead American, Fred Woodruff, 45, was a CIA agent sent to strengthen personal security arrangements for the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister. Woodruff was described after the murder as a 'regional-affairs officer' on temporary assignment.
In Washington, though, a State Department spokesman effectively confirmed reports that the Clinton administration had decided to play a more active role in former Soviet republics. This new strategy, as detailed by the Washington Post, would have the United States act as a mediator in regions such as Georgia, where Mr Shevardnadze has spent the past year trying to crush a separatist rebellion in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia.
But sections of the Russian military and more nationalistic politicians see more sinister motives and accuse the US of trespassing on Moscow's turf and harbouring imperial ambitions of its own.
The conservative military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) yesterday published a diatribe describing US plans for greater involvement in the former Soviet Union as a 'direct and unceremonious interference in the internal affairs of Russia and neighbouring countries'.
Such concerns will not have been calmed by the scene yesterday at Tbilisi airport, where Mr Woolsey stood on the Tarmac alongside Mr Shevardnadze, remembered in the West as a hero but condemned by some Russians as the man who gave away Eastern Europe. As they watched, a coffin draped with the Stars and Stripes was loaded into the Boeing in which the CIA director had earlier flown in from Moscow.
The murder of Woodruff outside Tbilisi follows that of a senior Russian official two weeks ago in the northern Caucasus. He was shot dead in an ambush while trying to broker a settlement between feuding Ingush and Ossetian peoples. Woodruff died while travelling by car on Sunday night with Mr Shevardnadze's security chief and two other Georgians. Details remain murky but most reports say he was killed by a single bullet to the head. No one else was hurt.
Stung by accusations of too little too late in former Yugoslavia, Washington seems eager to avoid the same mistake in the former Soviet Union. 'We have been working, as I think you know, in the area of preventive diplomacy and trying to deal with a lot of the conflict and strife that is arising in several of the former Soviet republics,' the State Department spokesman said yesterday. 'There is really a range of things going on I think, not only in Georgia but also as they relate to Abkhazia and Tajikistan.'
The Krasnaya Zvezda commentary yesterday accused Washington of trying to fuel, not reduce tension, accusations similar to those made by critics of Moscow's continuing military presence in Georgia, Tajikistan and other republics. It said Washington's real aim was to complete a policy pursued by presidents Reagan and Bush of undermining Russia's security.