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Amazon, Microsoft execs call for closer alliance between Pentagon and big tech

In this Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, photo, an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter sits on display outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Museum in Simi Valley, Calif. The stealth fighter joins an F-14 fighter as part of a permanent display about Reagan's efforts to strengthen the nation’s defenses. (Gretchen Wenner/The Ventura County Star via AP)
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SIMI VALLEY, Calif. ― Executives from Amazon and Microsoft criticized their Silicon Valley peers for allegedly failing to supply the most advanced technology to the military, arguing closer collaboration is needed to sustain U.S. dominance over autocratic foreign governments.

In comments last weekend at the Reagan National Defense Forum, an annual summit attended by top defense officials and their industry counterparts, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft President Brad Smith pledged to support the Pentagon even in the face of internal revolt.

Bezos, in a wide-ranging discussion Saturday morning that included a bizarre aside about his grandfather’s thumb injury, said technology executives should overrule employees who don’t want to work with the military. He made no mention of his company’s pending lawsuit against the Defense Department over a massive cloud computing contract recently awarded to Microsoft and did not take questions from reporters. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“One of the things that’s happening inside of technology companies is you have groups of employees who, for example, think technology companies should not work with the Department of Defense,” Bezos said. “People are entitled to their opinions, but it’s the job of a senior leadership team to say no.”

“Do you want a strong national defense or don’t you? I think you do … and we have to support that,” Bezos said.

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Smith, also Microsoft’s chief legal officer, seemed to riff on Bezos’s remarks later that day. In a panel discussion named for the “technological cold war” with China, Smith sat next to uniformed National Security Agency chief Paul Nakasone and two members of Congress. Smith said Microsoft would provide all its technology to the U.S. military, and pushed back on the idea that contributing to weapons development is somehow unethical.

“What I have said repeatedly to our employees is that there are more than a million people in the United States military, and every one of them … has pledged that before the sun sets they will sacrifice their life if that’s what they need [to do] to keep us safe,” Smith said.

“Of course we will provide all of our technology to them,” he said. “How could we possibly not do that?”

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Almost three years after the Pentagon’s national defense strategy called for a realignment around “great power competition” with nations such as China and Russia, Amazon and Microsoft have emerged as two of the national security establishment’s closest friends in the world of big tech.

Amazon has been the CIA’s primary cloud computing provider since 2013, something that has earned it the Pentagon’s highest-level IT certification for managing classified data. It has separately pitched its facial recognition technology to the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. And the Army and Defense Health Agency have tapped AWS to manage sensitive data, according to public contract documents and reporting by the trade publication NextGov.

But the two companies, which compete in the commercial cloud computing market, are locked in a bitter fight over who will supply the backbone of the U.S. military’s cloud computing infrastructure. Amazon is suing the Defense Department and Microsoft over a lucrative contract called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, known as JEDI.

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It was awarded to Microsoft in late October — jilting Amazon, the commercial market leader — following a high-level intervention from President Trump, who has long expressed animosity toward Bezos. It is worth up to $10 billion over a 10-year period.

The award follows a separate Microsoft win on a different project called Defense Enterprise Office Solutions, or DEOS, a $7.6 billion, 10-year contract awarded this summer. Under DEOS, defense agencies’ office IT systems are to be transferred onto Microsoft’s 365 office solutions system.

This year’s Reagan Forum, which has operated for several years as an intimate gathering for top defense officials, was attended by a small but growing crop of tech companies that have embraced national security work. Former Defense Digital Service director Chris Lynch was in attendance representing his company, a D.C.-based start-up called Rebellion Defense. Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey, who was the only attendee wearing sandals and shorts, attended the forum on behalf of Anduril, a defense-focused tech company he founded.

Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal and Palantir, said in a panel Saturday that Amazon and Microsoft point to a certain “cultural difference” between Seattle’s big tech companies and those of Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley “is very disconnected from the history of the 1950s, 1960s where Silicon Valley was heavily created by military R&D,” Thiel said. “And people are just not aware of that history.”