Published August 12, 2012
The Justice Department's lead internal investigator is finalizing his much-anticipated report on Operation Fast and Furious, which lawmakers and whistleblowers alike hope will bring final answers and accountability over the botched gun-running probe.
And while whistleblowers who spoke to Fox News predict an "all-encompassing" and "accurate and fair" account in the report, some believe Inspector General Michael Horowitz's account may ultimately become political Play-Doh, with each side shaping it to their liking or pounding it as unreliable.
Republicans have also questioned the impartiality of Horowitz, who works inside Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department, and say they "would prefer" to have someone with no connection to top department officials.
The report, expected to be released within weeks, will come just months after Holder was found in contempt of Congress, mostly along party lines, for withholding documents from a congressional inquiry on Fast and Furious, in what has become the biggest law enforcement controversy of President Obama's first term.
Horowitz declined to be interviewed by Fox News in advance of the release. But two of the initial whistleblowers interviewed by investigators said the report could contain some surprises.
"The public's perception is going to be probably vastly different than what comes out in the (inspector general's) report," Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Larry Alt told Fox News. Alt said he hopes the report "puts into writing" who is ultimately responsible for the program.
A recent report from Republican lawmakers conducting their own investigation casts much of the blame on the former head of ATF's Phoenix office and four ATF officials in Washington. A second report is also underway, and will focus on the alleged culpability of Holder and top Justice Department officials.
But Alt said the first report didn't "truly explore" the impact of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix on the case. Another whistleblower, Peter Forcelli, agreed.
While ATF deserves a "hammering" for Fast and Furious, federal prosecutors were "at least as culpable" for, among other things, telling ATF agents they didn't have enough evidence to stop cars or otherwise seize weapons. "That's what I hope the (inspector general's) report will spell out," he said.
Alt and Forcelli said they hoped the inspector general "sheds light" on whether there was a high-level plan to let guns slip into Mexico, as many have alleged, or whether what started as a smaller investigation just got out of control.
"I don't believe that the intent was, 'Hey, let's just let all these guns flow down there,'" Forcelli told Fox News. "I know people speculate that that was a plan and part of how to work this case," he said, but flooding Mexico with guns to "put pieces of the puzzle together" was not "a planned 'tactic.'"
Alt used to agree, believing until last year that Fast and Furious was "a poorly managed investigation that spun out of control." But he has since become convinced "the intent was to have (guns) go to Mexico and follow them down there."
Alt cited a January 2010 "briefing paper," in which the ATF said its strategy was "to allow the transfer of firearms" to continue, so gun traffickers could be identified. Alt hadn't seen the memo until it was uncovered by Republican staffers, who argued it proves guns were meant "to walk permanently."
But the briefing paper was silent on that issue, and Alt said he doesn't "have anything (to) dispute" that the original plan may have envisioned seizing firearms before they crossed the border. Either way, Alt and Forcelli said a "perfect storm" of factors let guns get away.
The operation, launched in late 2009, aimed to take down a Mexican gun-smuggling organization. The plan enlisted the cooperation of local gun dealers, who would keep ATF informed about sales to suspected "straw buyers," who use their clean criminal records to buy weapons for others.
Nearly 2,000 weapons were purchased over the course of several months. Some of the high-powered weapons were eventually discovered at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States, including the December 2010 murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
"In practice, they walked guns," even if that wasn't ATF's intent, Forcelli said. "In practice, they allowed illegally trafficked firearms to flood into Mexico."
Now it's up to Horowitz's report to detail exactly what happened and who knew about it.
Forcelli, who was an agent in ATF Phoenix but not part of the group conducting Fast and Furious, was interviewed repeatedly by Horowitz's office.
He said investigators asked him about past problems with the U.S. attorney's office, his "interpretation" of prosecutors' decisions, management problems within ATF, and Fast and Furious more generally.
Republican lawmakers say the Justice Department is stonewalling their investigation, and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., recently told Fox News the "burden's going to be high" for Horowitz to prove his independence. Horowitz has a long-standing relationship with Criminal Division head Lanny Breuer, who has admitted he learned two years ago about "gun-walking" in a Bush-era investigation but never asked whether similar investigations might still exist.
Forcelli said Horowitz is "not a political guy," saying his investigators "seemed to really just be interested in getting to the truth."
"I think we have a fairly clear picture from Congress, but I don't think that Congress can say definitively because I think Congress does not have the (benefit) of all the evidence," Alt said. "The (inspector general) has all the evidence."