Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz at his office on Aug. 29. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Two portraits of past attorneys general hang in the office of Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz. One depicts William Henry Harrison Miller, who became one of the first trust-busters while serving under President Benjamin Harrison.

“He took on big business, took on big interests — not afraid to stand up to folks — and had great credibility, apparently,” Horowitz said of Miller during an interview last week with the Federal Eye.

The other portrait shows former Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty, who served under President Warren Harding and was indicted in the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved bribes for leases of federal petroleum rights. Daugherty was acquitted, but Horowitz said he is still viewed as one of the “more corruptible people.”

Horowitz’s legacy as the Justice Department’s independent watchdog is yet to be determined, but one factor that will determine his standing is his review of the federal gunwalking operation known as Fast and Furious.

Horowitz issued a report on the botched ATF program six months into his tenure, finding no evidence that any attorneys general knew about Fast and Furious before early 2011, at which point Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was in his third year in office and the operation had stopped.

Despite clearing Holder and his predecessors, the report came down hard on ATF agents, senior officials and regional prosecutors, accusing them of lax oversight and ignoring risks to the public.

The Federal Eye discussed the Fast and Furious review and other matters that have been central to Horowitz’s tenure as inspector general during the interview last week. Below is a transcript of the discussion, which is edited for length.

Probably the hottest topic you’ve had to deal with to this point was Fast and Furious. How did you feel about the review of that operation?

“It was just a remarkably intense first six months on the job. I know I wouldn’t have chosen to walk into the job that way. Looking back on it, it was sort of trial by fire. You sink or you swim pretty quickly, and fortunately I didn’t sink. People can use their own judgement about how well I swam.”

How did you navigate such tricky terrain, considering the political pressures to come down one way or another?

“The lawyers, the non-lawyers alike, the agents, they were remarkable in their ability to do just like I’ve always said: You look at the facts and the law, and you try to keep your attention away from the political claims and all the stuff going on externally. You want to know what questions people are asking, but you don’t want to get caught up in the political nature of something, the news side.

“You want to focus on what are the facts and the evidence, where do they take us? If we were to go before a jury — the jury being the public here — what could we say that has credibility, factual support and responds to the concerns and questions people have.

“That is what we tried to do. We wrote a lenghty report, 470 pages, but we also felt we needed to create the historical record on what we found and what we were looking at, so people could go there and find the facts.

“We also made judgements. People could agree or disagree with our judgements, but we wanted to make sure they had the facts so they could also evaluate them.”

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

What did you learn from the process?

“I sat here with binders and binders of evidence and materials so I could talk with the team. I knew I had to really get into the facts on something that significant.

“I also needed to understand so I could talk with our team on what they were learning, and we could compare and share and contrast. Because my style is to sit down with the team and get everybody’s views out there. Let’s talk it through.

“You won’t ever come to a consensus. That’s not the purpose of it. I need to know what everyone’s views are so I can make a decision. I learned the value of that.”

How do you feel the report was received by the public, the White House and Congress?

“Generally, my sense is that there was satisfaction with the report. It addressed the issues people were looking for. I would leave it to others to decide how they feel.”

Has anyone pressured you to do more? I know some Republicans in Congress think Eric Holder should perhaps be held accountable for the operation.

“We have several things going on still. For example, there was a grenade component to it, and we’re finishing up on that. There was another operation in Texas, through another group, that we’re looking at and trying to finish up also. We had the follow-ups on the U.S. attorney’s alleged leak, which we reported out on. We’ve had a few different follow-ons, so we’re still doing work.”

What kind of relationship do you have with the attorney general? On one hand, you need to work with him, because he can help you identify or fix problems. On the other hand, you could theoretically have to investigate him at some point.

“It’s very important for any IG to have a strong professional relationship with the leaders of an organization. We have that. We meet separately roughly once a month with the deputy attorney general and try to make sure that they’re aware of problems that we’re finding within the organization that they have to manage. If there’s a problem that can be fixed, we want to fix it soon. We don’t want to have people wait for our report to fix it.

“On the other hand, when Fast and Furious was going on, that was never a subject that was on any of the agendas or the discussions with the attorney general or the deputy attorney general, because that involved allegations of conduct that went to the highest levels of the department.”

What type of role can you play in regard to the IRS targeting issue? Republicans are calling on Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to look for potential wrongdoing by high-level officials? 

“Well, you raise an interesting question for us, because this is where we are unique. Unlike any other IG out there, we have a restriction on what we can and cannot look at. I cannot look at allegations of misconduct or mismanagement by prosecutors in the course of their legal decisions.

“So, for example, if the complaint is that a prosecutor made a decision for illegal, unconstitutional, improper or political reasons, we arguably may have a role in it. But if the allegation is that the judgement call was wrongly made or they analyzed the facts wrong, or they did ethical violations, that goes to the Office of Professional Responsibility, and I have no role. Congress by statute has prohibited us from doing that.

“In a claim that the White House or the attorney general had a conflict and politicized, and there’s pressure on the prosecutor, we would argue that that could be within our jurisdiction. It’s very fact-specific.

“We’re the only IG with that issue. We’re the only IG, as I understand it, that does not have full, complete oversight authority over all of the employees in a department.There’s a bipartisan bill in Congress, sponsored by [Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)] and cosponsored by [Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mt.)] that would fix the problem.”

Do you support that proposal?

“Yes. But that’s something all three of my predecessors have supported.”

Your office recently launched an investigation of the DEA for allegedly paying an Amtrak secretary for sensitive passenger information that the agency could have obtained for free through an agreement with Amtrak police. What are you examining there?

“I couldn’t go into any of the substance of it, but the allegation that’s been put out there is that the Amtrak IG found that the payments were unnecessary because the person was obligated to give the information without being reimbursed or paid for their efforts. Obviously, the question is whether that was a good use of federal funds. That’s a broader management question.”

Could it also be a criminal matter?

“I can’t get into that. We don’t talk about our criminal cases.”

But you do look into that sort of thing — you can look for criminal misconduct, right?

“We do have authority to look at matters if they appear to have a criminal aspect to it. We tend to start our investigations and see where they take us. We don’t necessarily label them ‘criminal’ or ‘non-criminal.’ You just don’t how things will evolve. So we look at things and try not to rush to judgement over them — find the facts and don’t reach any conclusions until you have all that information.”

I imagine your office has a long-term plan for oversight efforts and that it largely sticks to that plan. What do you do when new issues suddenly crop up?

“It’s rare that we need to make a snap judgement immediately that day or the next day that we want to do something. We have time to look at it, pull the figures, get the information, have our auditors do some due diligence, have our investigators do some due diligence, along with analysts, lawyers, whoevers working it. We come back, sit down a week later or two weeks later and figure out if there’s something we should initiate: an audit, an investigation — what should we do? It’s a nice thing to reflect on it, thing about where this organization can have the greatest impact.”

Is your office looking into the police-militarization issue that gained prominence amid the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo.?

“When an issue like that comes up, we talk to our folks. One of the things we’re looking at now is: Is there money going out the door in that regard? And then we can sort through the next question of: What’s our oversight role given whatever we learn. If it’s a big number, that’s one thing. If it’s a relatively small number, that might require us to look at in a different way. But it’s a question we’re asking ourselves now.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz in his office, beside a portrait of former Attorney General William Henry Harrison Miller, whom Horowitz described as having “great credibility” and a “willingness to stand up to folks.” (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)