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GOP lawmakers, citing Pentagon emails, take aim at Amazon’s pursuit of cloud-computing business

At issue is whether the tech giant tried to gain an unfair advantage in the lead-up to the JEDI contract, which went to Microsoft before becoming mired in legal challenges and ultimately scrapped

In 2017, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis talks with Gen. Mark A. Milley, left, then the Army chief of staff. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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An earlier version of this story said Joseph Schmitz had labeled the 2020 election a “farce” in a Nov. 6, 2020, Newsmax column. The reference should have been attributed to Dennis Strausbaugh, a Marine Corps veteran who was quoted in the column.

Two Republican lawmakers, seizing on newly surfaced Defense Department emails, are calling for hearings on Amazon’s efforts to win a cloud-computing contract for the U.S. military worth as much as $10 billion.

The emails, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by a former Pentagon inspector general who had also advised Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, are related to a series of meetings then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis held with executives from several tech companies, including Amazon, in August 2017. They show that Sally Donnelly, who had been a paid consultant for Amazon before joining the Pentagon as a senior adviser earlier that year, encouraged other officials to set up a meeting between Mattis and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post).

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) contend the emails, first reported Tuesday by the New York Times, suggest the Seattle-based tech giant tried to use undue influence in its pursuit of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract, which went to Microsoft in 2019 before becoming mired in legal challenges and ultimately scrapped.

“It’s becoming more and more clear that Amazon used its market power and paid-for connections to circumvent ethical boundaries and avoid competition in an attempt to win this contract,” Buck and Lee said in a news release.

Pentagon cancels $10 billion JEDI contract challenged by Amazon, ending long-contested cloud-computing deal

“Now, more than ever, we need to ask Amazon, under oath, whether it tried to improperly influence the largest federal contract in history.”

The emails were released in late May after Joseph Schmitz sued. Schmitz had been the Pentagon’s inspector general during the George W. Bush administration before becoming the chief operating officer and general counsel for the Prince Group, the parent company of the defense contractor once known as Blackwater, according to his LinkedIn profile. He also advised Trump on national security matters during the 2016 campaign.

Schmitz also has written columns for Newsmax, the conservative online news outlet, in which he claimed to have observed widespread voter fraud in Pennsylvania, echoing discredited accusations aired by Trump in response to his loss. The headline on another column from Nov. 6 proclaimed: The headline on a Nov. 6 column proclaimed: “True electoral count shows Trump winning.”

According to court documents, Schmitz is represented by two other attorneys. It was not apparent from court records who might be funding the lawsuit.

Schmitz also seeks case files and investigative documents related to the inspector general’s April 13, 2020, report on JEDI, in an ongoing lawsuit involving the secretary of defense, as well as the Office of Inspector General.

In a statement emailed to The Post, Schmitz said the public interest had not been served in the Defense Department inspector general’s April, 2020 report on the matter. “Critical documents underlying that report still have not been disclosed. I think the small set of documents recently disclosed reveals how much has yet to be brought to light. There needs to be accountability for these decisions.”

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s inspector general said the IG “stands by the findings and conclusions” of its April 2020 investigative report and declined to comment further. Defense Department spokesman Russell Goemaere said the agency also stands by the IG report, which “found no improper influence in the JEDI contracting process,” a position he noted has been “validated by several independent authorities.”

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Donnelly’s attorney, Michael Levy, said his client has “always adhered to all ethical and legal obligations and acted in the best interest of the national security of the United States.”

He also said Donnelly had no influence over JEDI or any other government contract, adding: “To suggest otherwise not only reflects an absence of even the most rudimentary understanding of the government contracting process but also insults the dedicated career men and women at the Department of Defense.”

The JEDI contract had been a competitive lightning rod, with some of the biggest names in tech vying for the 10-year cloud contract, which was seen as an important foothold in a lucrative and fast-growing market. Amazon was widely viewed as the presumptive winner because it already had national security experience through its 2013 contract with the CIA. It also is the market-leading cloud provider, though Microsoft is gaining, and it remains the only company certified to hold top-secret data.

But the Defense Department went with Microsoft, twice, only to cancel the deal last week in the face of a protracted bid protest by Amazon. JEDI is to be replaced by a new contract that divvies the work among two or more companies.

Throughout its many phases, JEDI has been the subject of criticism related to a revolving door between Amazon and the Defense Department, much of it focused on the alleged role played by a handful of Amazon-linked officials in 2017 — several months before the JEDI procurement process kicked off.

The most vocal critic was Oracle, a onetime JEDI bidder whose database business is threatened by cloud technology. In an early bid protest, it accused Amazon of working its connections to steer the contract in its favor, alleging the procurement process had been “tainted.”

A federal judge concluded that one Amazon official, Deap Ubhi, whose work at the Pentagon was bookended by positions at Amazon, broke the rules when he left government to work for Amazon. His case was referred to the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute.

Amazon seeks to depose Trump, Esper in JEDI bid protest

But the court rejected Oracle’s allegation of a systematic, institutional conflict of interest that would corrupt the entire procurement. A lengthy inspector general’s investigation concurred.

Levy, the attorney for Donnelly, said the inspector general’s report concluded that she “acted entirely appropriately and did not provide preferential treatment or greater access to Amazon or anyone else.”

The emails appear to show that Donnelly helped broker meetings between Mattis and various tech leaders, including Bezos, several of which took place in August 2017.

In one email exchange from April 2017, Donnelly and another official agreed not to get involved in scheduling a meeting with Bezos. “We should stand back and let the [secretary of defense] schedule process work ― we should take no action to help. Not our place, not proper,” Donnelly wrote.

But on April 21, 2017, when an unnamed Air Force official asked Donnelly whether to accept a meeting with Bezos, she responded: “I think he is the genius of our age, so why not.”

Then, on April 23, Donnelly sent an email with the subject line “Why Bezos.” It listed seven reasons in support of a meeting, including his ownership of The Post and his founding of the spaceflight company Blue Origin. She also praised Amazon, saying, “Innovation is the organizing principle of the company.”

Later, in an Aug. 10 email sent after Bezos met with Mattis, another defense official whose name was redacted told Donnelly the meeting “seemed to go very well” but noted that it “seemed to morph into an [Amazon Web Services] sales pitch.”

Referring to Mattis, the official said, “Boss was nice and gracious but I didn’t get a good vibe out of it.”

Asked about the “genius” comment in the IG report published last year, Donnelly said that she had been “flippant” and that she had no control over Mattis’s meeting schedule. Her attorney said she and others had “encouraged Secretary Mattis to learn as much as he could from the country’s most prominent leaders in information technology, including the leaders of Microsoft, Google, and Apple ― each of whom Secretary Mattis met on the same August 2017 West Coast trip during which he met with the CEO of Amazon.”

Read the inspector general’s April 2020 report

Briefing materials presented to Mattis on that trip highlighted Amazon’s “innovative culture” but also gave similar plaudits to the company’s competitors. The briefing materials for Google’s visit, for example, praised the company’s “innovative approaches to information security” and its “highly-talented workforce.”

Ruth Vetter, who was director of the Defense Department’s Office of Standards and Conduct, said in an Oct. 18, 2017, email that she did not object to potential Bezos meetings on ethical grounds. “The key is for engagement with industry to be fair, even, and transparent. DoD officials can generally meet one-on-one with members of industry as long as they do not give preferential treatment to some members of industry,” Vetter wrote. (Vetter has since left the Pentagon for an ethics and compliance role at Boeing.)

In a Nov. 30, 2017, email, Donnelly encouraged other officials to also set up a meeting between Mattis and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, whom she called “one of the sector’s ‘thought leaders.’ ”

“Nadella has asked for it (we missed him when [Mattis] was in Seattle earlier this year); it ensures SD has balance across the tech sector leaders (he has seen Bezos, [Eric] Schmidt and [Sundar] Pichai of Google, etc),” Donnelly wrote.

The emails, per an official whose name was redacted, also said Mattis met with the Google chief executive, Pichai, as well as Apple CEO Tim Cook.

“The one positive note of the trip is that everyone (google, roundtable, cook) seemed to convey a sincere ‘patriotic’ tune. I think that might have surprised the Boss a bit. That’s my read, though, so take it with a grain of salt,” an unnamed official wrote in the Aug. 11, 2017, email to Donnelly.

In a subsequent report summarizing the trip, a defense official whose name was redacted said Mattis appeared persuaded of the need to embrace cloud technology.

“By the time the trip had completed, [Secretary of Defense] shifted from skeptical to convinced that we must move to the Cloud to remain competitive in development, efficient in administration, and lethal in operations,” the unnamed official said in a report, sent to other senior officials on Aug. 12, 2017.

JEDI’s initial call for applications was publicly launched seven months later.