By David Ingram
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A long-awaited report on a botched effort to control gun smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border is expected to be released on Wednesday after a 19-month review by the U.S. Justice Department's internal watchdog.
The report from the department's inspector general will address Operation Fast and Furious, in which U.S. agents tried to dismantle smuggling rings that fed weapons to drug cartels.
By overlooking low-level suspects, the agents in effect allowed 2,000 firearms to cross the border, critics say.
The operation is a focal point for Republican attacks on Attorney General Eric Holder, the chief U.S. law enforcement official and an appointee of President Barack Obama. The Republican-led House of Representatives voted in June to find Holder in contempt for withholding documents on the matter.
Gun owners, an important Republican constituency in swing states such as Pennsylvania, are especially energized by the scandal. Many believe it is part of an effort by the Obama administration to curtail gun rights.
Adding to the furor, two guns that agents listed in an operations database were found at the scene of the 2010 shooting death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry. It is not clear if bullets from the guns killed Terry or if agents had a chance to intercept the guns.
Holder and his staff have repeatedly denied that the Justice Department's leadership conceived of the operation and they have criticized its tactics. Holder asked for the inspector general's review in February 2011.
Congressional aides said they expected the report's release on Wednesday, a day before a planned hearing when Inspector General Michael Horowitz is to talk about the report. A spokesman for Horowitz would not comment on Tuesday.
Horowitz's report is highly anticipated because his office has access to non-public information, such as criminal investigation files, and because the office is a step removed from the partisan politics that otherwise mark the scandal.
The office issues reports without vetting from the Justice Department's leadership or the White House, and the chief of the office is more difficult to fire than other appointees.
The scandal has caused a handful of high-level Obama appointees to step down. In August 2011, Dennis Burke resigned as the U.S. attorney in Arizona and Kenneth Melson was reassigned from his job as the acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
(Additional reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by Eric Beech)