Photo: Busà Photography/Getty Images
Back in 2003, John Poindexter got a call from Richard Perle, an old friend from their days serving together in the Reagan administration. Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq War, which started that year, wanted to introduce Poindexter to a couple of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who were starting a software company. The firm, Palantir Technologies, was hoping to pull together data collected by a wide range of spy agencies — everything from human intelligence and cell-phone calls to travel records and financial transactions — to help identify and stop terrorists planning attacks on the United States.
Poindexter, a retired rear admiral who had been forced to resign as Reagan’s national-security adviser over his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, wasn’t exactly the kind of starry-eyed idealist who usually appeals to Silicon Valley visionaries. Returning to the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks, he had begun researching ways to develop a data-mining program that was as spooky as its name: Total Information Awareness. His work — dubbed a “super-snoop’s dream” by conservative columnist William Safire — was a precursor to the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance programs that were exposed a decade later by Edward Snowden.
Yet Poindexter was precisely the person Peter Thiel and Alex Karp, the co-founders of Palantir, wanted to meet. Their new company was similar in ambition to what Poindexter had tried to create at the Pentagon, and they wanted to pick the brain of the man now widely viewed as the godfather of modern surveillance.
“When I talked to Peter Thiel early on, I was impressed with the design and the ideas they had for the user interface,” Poindexter told me recently. “But I could see they didn’t have — well, as you call it, the back end, to automatically sort through