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Asher made his fortune in the 1990s building ever more powerful computers and software programs - tools for collecting and packaging facts about virtually every adult in America. He sold dossiers to insurance companies, police, private investigators, reporters, and many others. In 1998, Asher founded a company that came to be known as Seisint, short for "seismic intelligence."
There in his kitchen, martini in hand, Asher turned to a friend, a veteran police investigator, Bill Shrewsbury.
"And I said, 'Bill, I know how to find these guys.'," says Asher. "And so us 50-year-old guys were running across my house into my bedroom, which is about a 100-foot run, like we're children."
The two men raced to a computer in Asher's bedroom that links to his company's supercomputer. Furiously writing code, he told the computer to search through oceans of data for people likely to be terrorists. Among other attributes, he says, he selected for young, male Muslims.
"No names had been released; no anything had been done," says Asher. "But out of my database of over 450 million people that either have lived in this country or passed through this country, I got down to a list of 419 through an artificial intelligence algorithm that I had written. Marwan Yosef al-Shehi was on my list. He flew the plane into the second tower."
Asher says, though he didn't know it yet, five of the men on his list were 9/11 hijackers. The next day Asher sent the list of names to the FBI, Secret Service and Florida state police. On Sunday, September 16, an FBI agent and assistant U.S. attorney visited Asher's office and looked over his shoulder as he ran more searches.
"And as they asked me questions," says Asher, "I would actually run what they were asking in front of them. And the FBI guy would come out of his seat about six inches and say, 'Can you print that? Can you print that?'"
Within a week of the 9/11 attacks, a makeshift federal task force had formed at Seisint, turning the company into an intelligence outpost in the brand new war on terror.
"We got Secret Service guys, we got INS guys," says Asher, "between four and six FBI, and then probably about ten of my scientists, technologists, programmers and myself."
The raw material for their work: the names, addresses, interests and associations of virtually every adult in the United States.
Hank Asher didn't set out to be a player in protecting the nation's security. For years the data industry he helped revolutionize was just a very lucrative business. Data companies vacuumed up information about Americans, then processed and sold it for marketing, fraud detection and background checks.
Continue to Part 3