The investigation that really has DC on edge
It's easy to toss aside the chatter about political troubles both at the FBI and inside special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as old-fashioned bureaucratic infighting. But there is another investigation underway -- older, and genuinely independent -- that has some in DC wondering whether all that chattering may be an indication of something much bigger.
In early January, news that the Justice Department’s inspector general launched an investigation into the government's disputed handling of the Hillary Clinton email inquiry was quickly overtaken by the chaotic run-up to President Trump’s inauguration.
Nearly a year later, Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s wide-ranging review of the FBI and Justice’s work in the politically-charged Clinton case now looms as a potential landmine for Russia special counsel Robert Mueller.
For months, Horowitz’s investigation — which has amassed interviews with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, former FBI Director James Comey and other key officials — had been grinding on in near anonymity. That is, until earlier this month when the inspector general acknowledged that Mueller was alerted to a cache of text messages exchanged between two FBI officials on his staff that disparaged Trump.
The communications, involving senior counter-intelligence agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page, were gathered in the course of Horowitz’s internal review of the Clinton case, which Strzok also helped oversee. Horowitz’s investigation is not examining Mueller’s operation. But the disclosures already have provided a hammer to Trump loyalists who are escalating their criticisms of the legitimacy of the special counsel’s inquiry.
Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein only highlighted the potential gravity of the inspector general's work when they repeatedly urged Republican House committee members during separate hearings to withhold judgment about allegations of bias within the FBI until the internal Justice probe is completed.
Justice officials have indicated that a report is likely in the next few months.
There is ample reason to think Michael Horowitz's investigators will not pull their punches once a final report is made public:
For Horowitz, the Clinton email inquiry may be the most consequential investigation he has launched since his installment as Justice's watchdog in 2012. But the former public corruption unit chief in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office has not shied from controversy in the past five years.
Months after taking office, Horowitz issued a scathing account of a botched gun-trafficking operation that allowed an estimated 2,000 firearms to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartel enforcers.
The inspector general's review of the so-called "Fast and Furious" operation managed by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives recommended 14 federal law enforcement officials for discipline, resulting in a dramatic shakeup in leadership at the ATF. The operation was halted when two of the weapons were found at the scene of the 2010 slaying of border patrol agent Brian Terry.
A separate 2015 report authored by Horowitz's staff found that U.S. Drug Enforcement Agents posted in Colombia had engaged in sex parties involving prostitutes who were supplied by local drug cartels. The review concluded that some of the 10 agents involved admitted attending the parties where a local Colombian police offer often stood guard, protecting the agents' firearms and other property.
Less than a month after Horowitz's report, then-DEA chief Michele Leonhart announced her retirement from the agency.
Inspectors general do not have the power to prosecute. But they do have the power to publicly shame. If the Horowitz report follows past practices, it will not only be thorough, it will be fearless in naming names, and condemning processes.
But it can go no further. Any changes in policy, any punishments for illegal behavior, and certainly any changes in personnel, are up to the Justice Department, and Congress.