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Amazon is homing in on President Trump's public jabs at its business as it challenges the Pentagon's surprise decision to award a multibillion-dollar contract to Microsoft.
The company for the first time directly linked Trump's remarks to the award of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract as it formally filed a protest of the deal, my colleagues Jay Greene and Aaron Gregg report. Amazon filed its petition under seal, but it also notified the Court of Federal Claims that it's submitting four videos that purpotedly show undue influence by Trump in the bidding process, which include Trump's remarks about the company at a 2016 campaign rally and a news conference this summer. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).
“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,” Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener told my colleagues in a statement. “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.”
The company's filing could spark a legal reckoning about the potential damage wrought by Trump's habit of frequently attacking individual companies at rallies, in tweets and during other public remarks. The president's attacks on perceived enemies sometimes give the perception that he's exerting influence over decisions at independent government agencies.
The president's influence hasn't just been an issue raised with the JEDI contract. My colleague James Hohmann wrote earlier this year about how Trump and his associates' jabs at Big Tech contributed to the perception the Justice Department's review of the industry could be politically influenced. And there were also reports that Trump improperly intervened in ATT's acquisition of Time Warner Cable, which owns one of his favorite foils: CNN.
Scrutiny of Trump's efforts to influence the JEDI deal has grown following a book by former defense secretary Jim Mattis's speechwriter. Retired Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass wrote that Trump had tried to “screw” Amazon out of the contract and that Mattis effectively refused, telling colleagues the process would be done "by the book." Snodgrass's claims have not been independently verified.
Trump has frequently attacked Amazon since he was elected president, as well as Bezos's ownership of The Post. The White House did not respond to my colleagues' request for comment. Here's footage that corresponds with the four videos Amazon outlines in its filing:
1. Trump attacks Amazon at a 2016 campaign rally in Dallas, promising it will have “problems” if he's elected. The video seeks to underscore that Trump has been in conflict with Amazon since before taking the Oval Office.
“I have respect for Jeff Bezos, but he bought The Washington Post to have political influence … he owns Amazon … he wants political influence so that Amazon will benefit from it,” then-presidential candidate Trump said at the campaign rally in Fort Worth, Tx. “That’s not right. And believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems. They are going to have such problems.”
2. Trump tells reporters in July that he's directing his aides to investigate JEDI contract — an unusual level of involvement for the White House in a process the military usually handles.
“I’m getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon. ... They’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid,” Trump said. “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."
The president also said he had heard complaints from “companies like Microsoft, Oracle and IBM,” each of which bid on the contract.
3. Senators press a Pentagon official on whether Trump and the White House influenced the disbursement of the contract at a hearing last month, highlighting how questions persist about the process on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Angus King (D-Maine) asked Dana Deasy, the Defense Department chief information officer, for assurance the White House did not interfere with the agency's decision to award the contract to Microsoft following Snodgrass's book. Deasy said that to his knowledge, no White House officials had contacted the anonymous individuals who reviewed bids.
“I feel very confident that at no time were team members that actually took the source selection were influenced with any external, including the White House,” Deasy said, referring to an anonymous team of 50 cloud technology experts who evaluated bids.
4. Fox News blasts Amazon's "shady dealings" in a segment called "Swamp Watch." Trump then retweeted the video, which calls the JEDI contract the "Bezos bailout."
Amazon is using the segment to bolster its case that there has been unfair political influence and bias in the contract process.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: A trove of classified Chinese government documents sheds light on how the country uses a predictive policing algorithm to detain and suppress Muslim Uighurs and other minorities, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reports. The documents also highlight the extent to which the Chinese government invades the private lives of citizens to root out subversive behavior.
Using an “Integrated Joint Operations Platform,” the Chinese police and military collect vast quantities of data on citizens and then plug it into an artificial intelligence system to determine suspicious people. Chinese police used a range of sources for data, including closed-circuit cameras with facial recognition, spyware it forces Uighurs to install and WiFi scanners that collect identifying information off phones. Using a mobile app, police can run background checks in real time.
But classified documents show the algorithm is far from precise: The platform produced more than 24,000 “suspicious people,” some of whom were deceased, in one week. While it's unclear how the IJOP algorithm actually works, researchers say the aim is to preemptively identify anti-state behavior, stripping the need for human judgment. The seeming randomness of which citizens it will target next instills fear into monitored communities, experts say
“That’s how state terror works,” said Samantha Hoffman, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “Part of the fear that this instills is that you don’t know when you’re not okay.”
NIBBLES: ProPublica identified 57 channels YouTube failed to label as state-sponsored, including dozens that were backed by governments such as Russia and Iran accused of trying to influence U.S. elections. YouTube's haphazard enforcement of its policy to label state-funded channels raises concerns about the platform's ability to curb foreign disinformation ahead of the 2020 elections, Ava Kofman at ProPublica found.
One channel hosted a political talk show, “60 Minutes,” which shares a name with the nonpartisan American news program, boasting nationalistic commentary about Russian foreign agent Maria Butina. Several channels from RT, the Russian-funded English news station, evaded labeling and promoted conspiracy content including allegations that the Hong Kong protests were staged by Western powers.
YouTube immediately labeled the channel with the “60 Minutes” program and 34 others after ProPublica presented its findings. YouTube said the other 22 channels didn't meet its guidelines because they carried non-news content.
This isn't the first time watchdogs or the media have pointed out problems with YouTube's labeling system since it was introduced in 2018. In June, Reuters discovered 14 unlabeled Russia state media channels, 13 of which were labeled after the report. The United States Agency for Global Media, which oversees the U.S.-funded international broadcasters, reported in July that YouTube has failed to label outlets from North Korea, Iran and China it believed were spreading conspiracy theories and propaganda on behalf of their governments.
BYTES: James Barnes, the Facebook employee credited with helping Donald Trump win the 2016 election, has left the social network and the Republican Party. He's now helping Democrats win back the White House in 2020, working with the liberal nonprofit group Acronym with its goal to help Democrats beat President Trump's campaign on social media, Deepa Seetharaman at the Wall Street Journal reports.
“He understands the most dominant platform in politics exceedingly well,” said David Plouffe, a former Obama adviser and now board member at Acronym. “He thinks differently from someone who grew up in politics a decade or more ago.”
Barnes shed light on how the Trump campaign frequently threatened to go public with complaints about the social network if Barnes and Facebook didn't resolve them. In one instance, Trump's then-digital director Brad Parscale threatened that Trump would go on television to say that Facebook was unfair to him if it didn't extend a line of credit to the campaign, Deepa reports.
Barnes, as an embed to the Trump campaign, felt responsible for these complaints. In his role, Barnes tested thousands of variations of ads for the campaign and trained the campaign on how to use a tool he developed to target ads to yield millions in fundraising.
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— Coming up:
- The Open Technology Institute will host a panel on transparency reporting practices by technology companies on December 4 at 12pm.
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing on December 5.
At this Chinese hotel, the bellhops have been replaced by talking robots. My colleague Peter Holley goes behind the scenes of this strange robot interaction captured by Anna Fifield: