The list of luminaries selected for the Defense Innovation Board, an advisory council designed to help the Defense Department become more technologically adept and efficient, included some of the country’s most distinguished entrepreneurs, thinkers and innovators.
There was Eric E. Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the celebrated astrophysicist, and Marne Levine, chief operating officer of Instagram. There was also Jeffrey P. Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com and owner of The Washington Post.
But Bezos never officially joined the board, the Pentagon acknowledged for the first time in response to questions from The Post. An occasional target of President Trump’s tweets, the Amazon chief executive faced questions about his company’s business ties to the government and his need to apply for a security clearance.
“Due to the Board’s travel schedule and unique approach to its work, and the variety of security, legal, and ethical obligations of serving on a federal advisory committee, both parties mutually agreed to have Mr. Bezos provide individual advice to the Secretary of Defense, rather than continue to pursue his formal nomination to the board,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Patrick Evans said in a statement.
Bezos, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Bezos was invited to join the board during the latter stages of the Obama administration by then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who expressed little concern about whether Bezos received a security clearance, according to a Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Bezos’s participation without a clearance would have limited what he could see, but Carter at the time viewed the innovation board as focusing in part on issues that would not necessarily require one, such as improving the Pentagon’s business processes. Carter declined to comment through a former Pentagon associate.
But when Jim Mattis became defense secretary in the Trump administration, those selected for the board were asked to submit paperwork to gain a security clearance. Given Bezos’s wealth, business interests and holdings, getting a clearance probably would have been an arduous process. Also complicating the matter were concerns over the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Amazon Web Services has a $600 million cloud computing contract with the CIA.
The Pentagon also is getting close to awarding a cloud computing contract of its own, one that could be worth billions of dollars over many years. Many rivals in the industry have already complained that AWS has the inside track for that contract, though the Pentagon has vowed to hold “a full and open competition.”
In addition, Blue Origin, Bezos’s rocket company, has plans to compete for national security launch contracts, company officials have said.
“At some point, the new team asked, ‘Do we want to litigate this any longer?’ ” the Pentagon official said of Bezos’s status. “We have a high regard for him, obviously, but they could never reach an agreement.”
Mattis met behind closed doors in Seattle with Bezos on Aug. 10 for two hours on a trip with media that also included stops in Silicon Valley at Google headquarters and the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, an effort established under the Obama administration to increase collaboration between technology firms and the military.
Numerous media outlets reported at the time that Bezos was a member of the innovation board, though Bezos’s name is not listed on the board’s website. Neither the Pentagon nor Bezos appeared to seek a correction; Bezos shared a photograph on Twitter of him and Mattis at Amazon headquarters.
“A pleasure to host #SecDef Jim Mattis at Amazon HQ in Seattle today,” Bezos tweeted.
The visit was notable given Trump’s history with Bezos. The president has repeatedly accused Bezos of skirting tax rules with Amazon, and of buying The Post to provide political cover for the online retailer. Trump has regularly referred to the newspaper as the “#AmazonWashingtonPost,” though Bezos owns the media company personally and Amazon has no control.
Back in 2015, after one such attack, Bezos noted on Twitter how he was “trashed” by Trump, and made a tongue-in-cheek offer to the then-president-elect involving Blue Origin.
“Will still reserve him a seat on the Blue Origin rocket #sendDonaldtospace,” he tweeted.
Despite the back-and-forth, Trump invited Bezos along with other tech leaders to Trump Tower in New York to discuss the industry in December 2016.
But six days after Mattis’s August visit to Amazon, Trump took aim at the company once again, accusing the Internet giant of hurting conventional retailers.
“Amazon is doing great damage to tax paying retailers,” he tweeted. “Towns, cities and states throughout the U.S. are being hurt — many jobs being lost!”
Though it once did not collect taxes, Amazon says it now does for items it sells that are purchased by customers in the 45 states and the District of Columbia that have a sales tax. (Third-party sellers on the site may handle collection differently.) The retailer has backed legislation that would require other retailers to do so as well.
The White House said it played no role in selecting members for the innovation board and referred comments to the Pentagon.
There are 13 board members. Evans, the Pentagon spokesman, said all members were asked to submit paperwork for a security clearance, but he declined to disclose whether other members have clearances, citing security reasons.