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Hank Asher has made a fortune in the data business, and lives like it. His 65-foot fishing boat has four cabins and a gleaming kitchen, satellite Internet and eight phone lines.
Asher was spending a lot of time on his boat before 9/11. After the attacks, he says, he felt called to enlist in the fight against terrorism, offering his powerful data searching system to the government as a weapon. But there's some irony in Hank Asher's new role as a crime-fighting and national security whiz.
If Asher's supercomputer were used to conduct a background check on Asher himself, it might reveal his association with drug-smugglers. According to confidential Florida police documents and interviews with law enforcement authorities and Asher, in the early 1980s, Asher flew planes to and from Central and South America carrying marijuana and cocaine. He says he regrets that episode of his life and blames it on a hunger for adventure.
"I didn't feel like I had done a crime," Asher explains, "until it occurred to me I had just done a crime. ... I was a criminal. And I can tell you [that] since June of 1982, I have never broken the law."
Asher was never arrested or charged. He's worked hard to make amends, giving generously to police groups and other charities. He's also given hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians in both major parties.
Asher's rehabilitation seemed complete in January of 2003 when he flew to Washington, D.C., for a meeting at the White House. He and a colleague from his company, Seisint, were invited to demonstrate a powerful information system Asher had invented and billed as a counterterrorism tool. The entrepreneurs were escorted by Jeb Bush, the Florida governor and president's brother.
"We were waiting," says Asher, "and then all of a sudden the entourage of Dick Cheney and his people, all the Homeland Security people were there. Tom Ridge was there; Mueller came in. We all sat down."
That is, Robert Mueller, the FBI director. Also at the meeting was Tim Moore, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a friend of Hank Asher's.
Asher continues, "Governor Bush started it with saying that Commissioner Moore and FDLE, working, especially with Seisint, have come up with what we feel is a very important tool for this country."
The fact that that meeting took place shows how determined government leaders are to use new tools in fighting what they consider a new kind of war. The government knew Hank Asher's history. The Drug Enforcement Administration, among other agencies, had once severed ties with Asher's company, citing allegations of a law-breaking past. Now top law enforcement and national security officials were embracing him.
Continue to Part 2