Christopher Ruddy has done it again.

How can anyone read the investigative reporter’s story yesterday about the apparent bullet in the head of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and not conclude that the Cabinet official’s body must be exhumed and examined by a group of competent, independent investigators with no connection to this administration?

There’s only one problem: How many people will read Ruddy’s story? How widely will it be disseminated? Will it be picked up by an establishment press apparently hell-bent on burying any potential scandal involving the White House?

The basic facts are worth repeating. An Air Force lieutenant colonel, Steve Cogswell, who is also a doctor, forensic pathologist and deputy medical examiner with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, has released photos and x-rays he believes show a bullet hole in the top of Brown’s head. Cogswell’s credentials are unimpeachable: He is in charge of training courses at AFIP.

Cogswell, who was involved in the investigation of last year’s crash of the Air Force plane that carried Brown and 34 others on a trade mission in Croatia, says evidence that the Cabinet official was murdered has been ignored.

Just as in the case of Vincent Foster’s death, there was a rush to judgment with the Ron Brown plane crash. Mirroring the political judgments made in the White House and Pentagon, the crash was immediately deemed to be an accident — then only evidence that bolstered that conclusion was gathered.

No autopsy was performed on Brown, though Cogswell urged that the procedure be conducted. He also believes an autopsy should have been performed on Brown’s aide, Naomi Warbasse, because examiners could not determine her cause of death.

Cogswell also notes that the original x-ray, which, he says, showed a “lead snowstorm,” typical of a gunshot wound, has been replaced by investigators with another one. However, Cogswell still has in his possession a photographic copy of the now missing x-ray.

Cogswell disputes the official explanation of the hole — that it was a superficial wound inconsistent with a gunshot. He says brain matter is visible in the wound, indicating the skull was penetrated.

Dr. Martin Fackler, former director of the Army’s Wound Ballistics Laboratory in San Francisco, also examined the photos.

“I’m impressed with how very, very round that hole is,” he said. “That’s unusual except for a gunshot wound. It’s unusual for anything else.”

He said he could not rule it a gunshot wound without an autopsy, and expressed shock that one was not conducted.

“They didn’t do an autopsy,” he said. “My God. It’s astounding.”

It’s astounding, all right. The reaction to this story has been equally astounding. Ruddy’s well-documented, fully attributed report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was not picked up by the Associated Press. Why? Is someone on the AP desk in Pittsburgh asleep at the wheel? Or, is the explanation more sinister? Was it a political decision — just like the one made by investigators on the scene who chose not to perform an autopsy because of the tough questions one might raise?

What’s worse, these are not the first questions raised about the Brown plane crash. What happened to the flight attendant who survived the crash? What really happened to that flight controller found dead of a gunshot wound? What caused the plane to crash into the side of a mountain — a disaster that should have been averted with the navigation equipment aboard the T-43?

Isn’t it amazing how little curiosity the American press has for such a story? And where’s the Congress? They still haven’t caught up with Janet Reno’s outrageous decision not to name an independent counsel to investigate White House fund-raising. Now this.

Counting Vincent Foster, this is the second death of a high-ranking administration official under suspicious circumstances in Clinton’s first term. Both figures were intimately involved in key administration scandals — Foster in Whitewater and Travelgate, and Brown in the fund-raising and kickback controversies.

Coincidence? Or is this one of the ways the lid is kept on administration scandals?

Once again, Chris Ruddy has done his job — superbly exposing another dark mystery of the Clinton administration. Now, the question is, who’s going to take this investigation to the next level? America won’t accept another Foster-style cover-up. It’s time to exhume Brown’s body and answer all the questions.

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