December 4, 2022

WASHINGTON – As the Department of Defense prepares to solicit bids for cloud computing work that could earn Amazon billions of dollars, Congressmen raise new questions about the company’s efforts to win a $ 10 billion contract during the Trump administration .

Previously unpublished emails show Pentagon officials praised several of the technical executives whose companies expressed an interest in the original contract, particularly Amazon, in 2017 and 2018, while concerns about the company’s access were glossed over, according to the emails seem to be other documents and interviews.

Two Republican lawmakers who have urged the domination of Amazon and other tech companies in consumer markets are using the emails as evidence that Amazon has wrongly used its leverage in competing for tax-funded contracts.

Representative Ken Buck from Colorado and Senator Mike Lee from Utah called on Amazon to testify under oath “whether it tried to improperly influence the largest federal treaty in history,” the $ 10 billion project called Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure ( JEDI). move the Pentagon’s computer networks to the cloud. Amazon did not respond to requests for comments.

Whatever influence Amazon had in the Trump-era Pentagon had limited impact. And the company also had a very high-profile opponent: President Donald J. Trump, who during his tenure regularly attacked the then head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post. Amazon eventually lost the JEDI contract, which was awarded to Microsoft in 2019, which sparked the question of whether Mr Trump’s hostility towards Amazon played a role in the outcome.

But in a win for Amazon, the contract was terminated by the Pentagon this month amid a controversial legal battle over the award between Amazon, Microsoft and other tech companies. The Department of Defense immediately announced it was launching a revamped cloud program that could bring contracts for Amazon, Microsoft, and possibly other companies, what is expected to spark an intense lobbying war.

The newly released emails and interviews with acquaintances provide a glimpse into the evolving relationship between the Department of Defense and major tech companies at a time when the Pentagon is shifting its focus from planes, tanks, and other hardware to software and artificial intelligence initiatives relocated and machine learning.

They show how high-level Pentagon officials and Silicon Valley executives courted each other admiringly in the months leading up to the JEDI battle, resulting in high-level access for some of the firms that later expressed interest in the contract. The tech executives used the access to urge Jim Mattis, Mr. Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, to adopt cloud-based technology and, in at least one case, promote their own company’s technology.

During a trip to the West Coast in the summer of 2017 to meet executives from Apple, Amazon, and Google, Mr. Mattis became uncomfortable while awaiting a demonstration of Amazon’s cloud computing products at the company’s Seattle headquarters war would be a more general discussion of cloud technology, according to documents and a former senior Pentagon official familiar with the meeting.

The former official said the demonstration was attended by Mr Bezos, whom Mr Mattis had just met one-on-one, and a number of his lieutenants, and it was led by a manager who sells products from Amazon Web Services or AWS was responsible to governments.

Briefing materials prepared for Mr. Mattis prior to the meeting stated that “it will not be a sales pitch,” with “not” underlined for emphasis.

But immediately after the meeting, an adviser to Mr. Mattis wrote in an email to another Pentagon official that the meeting “appeared to be turning into an AWS sales pitch.” Mr. Mattis “was nice and amiable, but it didn’t get me in a good mood,” the advisor wrote, adding that the pre-demonstration session with Mr. Bezos “seemed to be going very well” and that the Amazon founder and defense minister “Seemed to click on a personal level”.

The competition for the JEDI contract quickly sinks into bitter bickering. IBM protested the request for quotation, suggesting giving preference to Amazon, while Oracle alleged Pentagon officials had conflicts of interest related to Amazon. When the contract went to Microsoft instead, Amazon sued for blocking it, arguing that the Trump administration interfered in the deal because of Mr Trump’s hostility to Mr Bezos.

An investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General rejected the most serious allegations that officials from Amazon and the Pentagon improperly turned the procurement process on the company.

In a report last year, the Inspector General concluded that the outcome of the JEDI deal was not affected by Mr. Trump’s attacks on Amazon, or by the ties between the company and the Department of Defense.

However, the report omitted expressions of concern about the sales pitch demonstration for Mr. Mattis at Amazon headquarters and language from an email exchange in which a Pentagon official said two close advisers to Mr. Mattis that the chief of defense staff “postponed” them whether to accept a request from Amazon for a meeting between Mr. Bezos and Mr. Mattis at the Pentagon.

One of the close advisors, Sally Donnelly, replied that Mr Bezos is “the genius of our time so why not”. Ms. Donnelly had worked at the Department of Defense during the Obama administration before starting a consulting firm in 2012 that included Amazon as a client. This meeting does not appear to have taken place and Ms. Donnelly later testified to the Inspector General that she was “frivolous” and that Mr. Mattis’ chief of staff – not Ms. Donnelly – had decided which meetings should take place.

But less than two days after her email calling Mr. Bezos a genius, Ms. Donnelly followed suit with a list of seven reasons why Mr. Mattis should see him. This included the fact that Amazon had hired “many” former US government intelligence experts that its cloud security was “so convincing” to the CIA that “the agency took the surprising move two years ago to move most of its secure work to Amazon to migrate “. and that Mr. Bezos’s holdings in the Washington Post gave him “influence beyond the business community.”

The Inspector General’s office did not answer questions about the omissions of certain lines in the emails or whether those omissions left an incomplete picture of the interactions between the Pentagon and Amazon.

“Our JEDI Cloud Procurement Report speaks for itself – we stand by our findings and conclusions,” said Dwrena K. Allen, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, in a statement.

Michael N. Levy, an attorney for Ms. Donnelly, said in a statement that she “always followed all ethical and legal obligations and acted in the best interests of the national security of the United States.”

Your efforts to broker meetings for Mr. Mattis and other technical leaders were “part of the Department of Defense’s critical effort to transform itself in the digital age,” said Levy.

The emails – dated 2017 and 2018 – were released by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General in response to a former Inspector General’s complaint under the Freedom of Information Act. The events described therein precede the Pentagon’s formal request for offers for the JEDI contract.

The emails show that Mr. Mattis’s employees also praise the managers of other companies.

Ms. Donnelly called Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, “one of the ‘thought leaders’ in the sector and one of the most prominent Indians in the country,” and indicated that it was important for Mr. Mattis to meet with Mr. Nadella to demonstrate Impartiality.

Another consultant, whose name has been blacked out in the emails, wrote that Milo Medin, a Google executive whom Mr Mattis met during his 2017 West Coast trip, was “great”.

Mr. Mattis’s meeting with Apple’s Tim Cook was “solid too,” the consultant wrote, noting that the two men “appeared to be clicking in person. Cook said he was anxious to do the best he could (and seemed serious about it). ”The consultant concluded that“ a positive note about the trip is that everyone ”in the various companies is“ a sincere ‘ seemed to convey a patriotic ‘melody. I think that maybe surprised the boss a bit. “

A month after the trip, the Pentagon released a memo entitled “Accelerating Enterprise Cloud Adoption”.

Mr Buck, who was working on a bipartisan legislative package that the Judiciary Committee passed last month to weaken Big Tech’s dominance, joined Mr Lee in May to send Mr Bezos a letter suggesting Amazon tried to “monopolize”. one or more markets related to government and / or commercial cloud computing services by improperly influencing the procurement process of the corporate common defense infrastructure. “

They called on the Justice Department to investigate whether Amazon “may have violated federal conflict of interest and antitrust laws.” And they accused the Department of Defense Inspector General of glossing over inconvenience related to Amazon’s offer for the JEDI contract.