A number of years ago in the Middle East I served with a female case officer. She was smart. She was capable. She was tenacious.
One day my friend was contacted by a guy in the country where she was serving. He said he wanted to provide her with information on terrorist threats to Americans. She agreed to meet with him.
The first meeting was a mess. The guy in question was all over the map. He was emotional. He was erratic. He was contradictory. His access was uncertain. His motivations were unclear. Headquarters was no help. They could not corroborate anything the man was saying.
My friend kept at it.
The guy claimed to have a friend who was part of a Muslim extremist group, which was planning to attack American targets in the nation in question. He said this friend might be willing to meet with US intelligence officers. It was unclear why he thought his friend would agree to this. Key details of the man's story seemed fuzzy. He was very hard to pin down. Information that should have been acquired in minutes took hours for this female officer to tease out of him.
She kept at it.
The original source introduced my friend, the female officer, to the guy in the terrorist group. She met with him. She waded through the difficulty of convincing a radical Muslim, albeit one with misgivings about violence, to work with her against the members of his own organization. She overcame the challenge of persuading a man with medieval ideas about women to take direction from a female. She recruited him.
This new source sat at the table for months as the group in question planned its attacks. He fed every detail to my friend. She reported every detail to Washington.
The terrorist group sent individuals to Pakistan for training in explosives and terrorist tactics. The source reported on all of it. My friend wrote it up and sent it to DC.
The trainees returned from Pakistan. They began their preparations for attacks. Based on my friend's reporting, they were arrested along with every other member of the cell of which they were members. No attacks took place. No one died. No one was injured. No lives were shattered.
Here is what my friend did not do.
She did not meet with the original lead, write up a perfunctory report, enter his name in some database and call it a day. She did not classify him as inconsistent or contradictory in his statements and write him off. She did not send a memo to some other government agency and suggest they might want to do something with the information.
She did her job.
She grabbed a hold of a lead and she followed it to ground. She took the thread she had been handed and she pulled with all her might. She did not know when she started this process where it would lead her. It might turn out to be a great success. It might mean months of work that would lead to the conclusion that the lead was a dry hole, and there was no threat.
She understood that working the lead to its conclusion, whichever way it broke was her duty. She did it.
We have now reached the predictable point in the aftermath of the Boston bombings. It has become apparent that the FBI did not do everything that it could have done to prevent the attacks. It is obvious that a lead that should have allowed for the apprehension of Tamerlan Tsarnaev well before the attacks took place was not exploited. The finger pointing has started about who did or did not do what with which database.
There will be hearings. There will likely be some sort of commission. Recommendations will be made. God help us, someone will mandate the creation of some new set of regulations. Someone else will suggest we need just one more layer of bureaucracy and one more database, and it will all be ok.
It will not. We do not need more bureaucrats. We do not need more process. We have already added thousands of new positions and multiple new agencies since 9/11.
We need a culture in our intelligence community that fosters aggressive, relentless pursuit of leads. We need more bulldogs that won't let go not more people behind desks and attending meetings. We need more hard-nosed field operatives who will work a case to the gates of hell if necessary to ensure that lives are not lost.
Databases and forms do not catch terrorists. Hunters like my friend do.