- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2019

The White House faces a “very ugly” legal battle with Amazon over the handling of a massive contract to handle the Pentagon’s vast cloud computing needs, experts say, and top administration officials ultimately may have to reveal under oath whether President Trump personally interfered in the process.

The fight is already shaping up as a battle of economic and political super heavyweights, with Mr. Trump making clear his lack of respect for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his business empire, which happens to include The Washington Post.

The Defense Department last month awarded the 10-year, $10 billion military cloud computing contract to Microsoft, surprising observers who believed Amazon was the clear front-runner. With Amazon Web Services now lodging a formal protest and alleging clear political bias that prevented the company from winning the lucrative deal, attention turns to a potentially explosive legal proceeding likely to ensnare the president, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and other top officials across the federal government.

The fight over the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) program is gearing up during impeachment proceedings in the House and almost surely will produce another major legal headache for the White House. Analysts say a court battle between the administration and Amazon would center on whether Mr. Trump broke historical precedent and directed the Defense Department to select Microsoft.

The legal fight will likely result in sworn depositions of top administration officials, the release of internal memos and emails regarding JEDI, and other information that may shine a light on what influence, if any, the White House had over the process.

“This is going to get very ugly,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget. “The difference is deciding who gets a contract as opposed to the conditions of the contract. In other words, if Trump really did interfere in the source selection and push it toward Microsoft or away from Amazon, that would be very improper and I would suspect illegal.”

Past presidents have had a hand in the structure of contract terms or in the technical requirements of companies bidding. But analysts say a president has never played a direct role in deciding who wins the award.

For Amazon, the loss of the JEDI contract means the loss of billions of dollars. Its rival Microsoft, meanwhile, will be at the forefront of technological advancement in the military. The JEDI contract will cover the storage and processing of huge amounts of classified Pentagon data, and Microsoft will now be in an unprecedented high-tech partnership with the U.S. military.

The JEDI program, informally known as the military’s “war cloud,” will enable the immediate sharing of data to battlefields around the world and will greatly aid the U.S. military in virtually all of its operations.

Amazon and Microsoft were the only two companies left in the running by the time of the award last month.

Denying interference

Amazon claims nearly half of the U.S. cloud computing market. It was the only bidder for the JEDI contract to hold the Pentagon’s security clearance classification, leading to widespread predictions in the industry that the company was a strong favorite to win the competition.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times on Monday, though officials have said the president was not involved in the selection process. Defense officials also have downplayed the notion of interference from the White House.

“I am confident it was conducted freely and fairly without any type of outside influence,” Mr. Esper said during a news conference last week. Mr. Esper recused himself from the final decision because of his son’s work for IBM, one of the early bidders for the contract.

The Pentagon made the same argument when it announced Microsoft as the winner last month.

“All offerors were treated fairly and evaluated consistently with the solicitation’s stated evaluation criteria,” the Pentagon said.

Amazon last week announced that it intends to file a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Should the case move forward, Amazon has plenty of ammunition to argue that politics and the president’s personal vendetta against the company factored into the final decision.

Guy Snodgrass, who served as a speechwriter for former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, says in a recently released book that Mr. Trump told the Pentagon in the summer of 2018 to “screw Amazon” out of the contract.

The book says Mr. Mattis dismissed the idea as improper and effectively ignored the order.

“We’re not going to do that. This will be done by the book, both legally and ethically,” the defense chief said, according to the book “Holding The Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.”

Beyond that, Mr. Trump publicly bashed Amazon numerous times over the past few years. Mr. Trump has frequently taken to Twitter to blast the company for, as he puts it, not paying its fair share of taxes from its online retail businesses. The president also routinely criticizes the “Amazon-Washington Post,” a reference to Mr. Bezos’ ownership of the newspaper, whose editorial pages have relentlessly criticized Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump said this summer that he would look into whether Defense Department officials unfairly favored Amazon throughout the JEDI process. Shortly afterward, Mr. Esper launched an internal review of the contract.

“I’m getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon. They’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office in July. “And I will be asking them to look at it very closely to see what’s going on because I have had very few things where there’s been such complaining.”

In a statement last week announcing its protest, Amazon made no secret of its belief that it lost out on the contract because politics.

Amazon Web Services “is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts,” the company said. “We also believe it’s critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence. Numerous aspects of the JEDI evaluation process contained clear deficiencies, errors, and unmistakable bias — and it’s important that these matters be examined and rectified.”

Meanwhile, retired military officials say the latest round of legal wrangling may mean significant delays for the cloud contract when it’s desperately needed.

“The DoD’s entrance into enterprise cloud computing is overdue. The JEDI contract will be a trailblazer that will pull the Pentagon into 21st-century computing,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, now director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It has already been delayed, and further delay frustrates efforts to incorporate this best practice into America’s military.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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