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Amazon seeks to force Pentagon to halt work on JEDI cloud computing contract

President Trump with Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, center, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at a White House roundtable in 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Amazon Web Services is seeking to force the Pentagon to halt work on a massive cloud computing contract recently awarded to its biggest competitor, Microsoft, as it pursues allegations that President Trump improperly meddled with defense funds to act on a grudge against Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The sealed motion was filed Wednesday as part of a bid protest at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which handles disputes over federal contracts.

In a statement, Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said it is “common practice” to halt contract performance during a bid protest and emphasized that his company supports the Defense Department’s technology initiatives.

“It’s important that the numerous evaluation errors and blatant political interference that impacted the JEDI award decision be reviewed,” Herdener said in a statement. “AWS is absolutely committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts and to an expeditious legal process that resolves this matter as quickly as possible.”

Defense officials have said the award followed all laws and regulations and have insisted the decision-making process that led to Microsoft’s win was walled off from presidential influence. Microsoft spokesman Bill Calder declined to comment on Amazon’s motion. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

“The department remains confident in the JEDI award,” Rachel VanJohnson, a spokeswoman with the Defense Department’s Cloud Computing Program Office, said in an email. “Our team’s duty and sole focus must remain on equipping our warfighters for an increasingly complex and challenging battlefield environment.”

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She added that the Pentagon will implement the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) as soon as possible.

“The Department of Defense will continue to fight to put this urgently-needed capability into the hands of our men and women in uniform as quickly and efficiently as possible,” VanJohnson said in an email.

The Defense Department has said it will not move beyond initial preparatory activities until Feb. 11 at the earliest, prompting Amazon to initially hold off on asking for a stay. However the department has already started testing and accrediting different aspects of the JEDI cloud, including an automated “provisioning tool” that defense agencies can use to order cloud services for their own use. In addition, the Cloud Computing Program Office, a centralized office that manages the department’s cloud services, has been meeting with certain “early adopter” organizations within the Defense Department to better-understand how they will use JEDI.

JEDI is meant to create a powerful, centralized computing system operated by a single technology company. In October, the Defense Department awarded Microsoft a contract worth up to $10 billion for the system, jilting Amazon, the cloud-computing market leader.

The award to Microsoft came soon after a high-profile intervention by Trump, who said he was acting on complaints from Amazon’s competitors. At issue in the case is whether the commander in chief’s involvement skewed the competition in Microsoft’s favor.

In its bid protest, Amazon pointed to what it called “unmistakable bias” and “political influence” in the government decision-making process that led to Microsoft’s win. The company’s case has so far relied primarily on the president’s public statements, including a February 2016 campaign rally in which he said Amazon would “have problems” if he were elected, citing Bezos’s ownership of The Post.

Over time, the case could grow in scope and importance as Amazon’s claims are scrutinized.

Together, the opposing teams at Amazon and Microsoft have asked for almost 50 lawyers and consultants to contribute to the case. There will be a court-appointed “classified information security officer” to ensure that sensitive national security information is stored correctly. The sealed records that the government will be required to produce as part of the bid protest will include 200,000 pages of information and over 100 gigabytes of data, according to one court filing.

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Amazon’s protest is the fourth legal challenge the JEDI contract has faced. Earlier bid protests caused the project to be delayed more than a year while officials investigated various allegations against Amazon.

Amazon had long been considered the front-runner for the massive contract; it is the market leader and it remains the only company that can handle top-secret data. Many of Amazon’s advantages stem from a 2013 contract award that made it the CIA’s primary cloud provider.

Software giant Oracle, which also wanted the contract but was eliminated in an earlier phase of the competition, protested the award long before bids were even submitted, assuming Amazon to be the front-runner. The company carried out a long-running campaign seeking to paint JEDI as a conspiracy by Amazon to set up a “ten-year DoD cloud monopoly,” as Oracle put it in one lobbying document.

In late July, the president said in a televised news conference that he had received “tremendous complaints” about the contract from Amazon’s competitors, specifically citing Oracle, Microsoft and IBM.

“Some of the greatest companies in the world are complaining about it, having to do with Amazon and the Department of Defense, and I will be asking them to look at it very closely to see what’s going on,” Trump said of the JEDI contract.

Soon afterward, he retweeted a link to a Fox News segment that called the contract the “Bezos Bailout.”

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He separately asked Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper to reexamine the Pentagon’s approach to the JEDI contract, citing concerns that the contract would go to Amazon, people familiar with the matter told The Post at the time.

Defense officials have said the decision-making process was walled off from the White House and followed all relevant laws and regulations. Dana Deasy, the Defense Department’s chief information officer, said in a recent congressional hearing that there was a two-tracked process in which the officials who evaluated bids from Amazon and Microsoft were not in touch with the White House.

“I feel very confident that at no time were team members that actually took the source selection … influenced with any external, including the White House,” Deasy said, referring to an anonymous team of 50 cloud technology experts who evaluated bids.

In statements to the media, Defense Department spokespeople have emphasized that the president did not “order” the Pentagon to make any specific determination leading up to the Microsoft award.