Note: This story is based in part on reporting by O?Harrow for his forthcoming book, to be published in January by Free Press and supported by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
One day in January 2003, an entrepreneur from Florida named Hank Asher walked into the Roosevelt Room of the White House to demonstrate a counterterrorism tool he invented after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Soon to be called Matrix, it was a computer program capable of examining records of billions of people in seconds.
Accompanied by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the state’s top police official, Asher showed his creation to Vice President Cheney, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Tom Ridge, who was about to be sworn in as secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security, according to people at the meeting.
The demonstration startled everyone in the room who had not seen it before. Almost as quickly as questions could be asked, the system generated long reports on a projection screen: names, addresses, driver license photos, links to associates, even ethnicity. At one point, an Asher associate recalled, Ridge turned toward Cheney and nudged him with an elbow, apparently to underscore his amazement at the power of what they were seeing. A few months later, Ridge approved an $8 million “cooperative agreement” from his department to help states link to the computer system.