If you think this column is about cloud security, it’s not. That was a debate that raged about five years ago but has since passed.
In fact, what I don’t question is industry’s ability to develop a secure, capable cloud infrastructure for the Pentagon. Both Amazon Web Services and Microsoft, the last companies standing in the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative, or JEDI, competition, count civilian agencies and corporations from other highly regulated markets among their customers. This is far from an insurmountable technology challenge.
What I do question is how on earth the Pentagon screwed up the competition so badly.
Consider where we’re at: Prior to the downselect, Oracle launched a lawsuit, which eventually led to an internal Pentagon ethics investigation and a pause on the program. That investigation wrapped, with the Pentagon claiming that the contract could be awarded as early as mid-July, even as critics still argued the JEDI contract is effectively tailored for Amazon Web Services.
But wait — Oracle was not done. An amended complaint released this month alleges that at least two Pentagon employees were offered jobs at AWS while working on the cloud contract, one of which helped design the requirements in a way that was favorable to Amazon after receiving “significant” job and bonus offers from Amazon.
Of course, we see conflict of interest protests with government contracts all the time — where one bidder claims another bidder has an advantage because of a particular employee who used to work at the agency; or vice versa, because a government official involved in the competition used to work for a bidder. It’s one of the complexities of that revolving door between government and industry that I’ve written a lot about lately. I’d like to think that typically such conflicts either are overstated in protests or are unintentional. There are firewalls in place to help prevent misconduct.
If the allegations here are true though, the situation is more sinister — essentially pointing to an orchestrated effort to bribe a government influencer to stack the deck for a company in exchange for a cushy position and lucrative paycheck.
But if not true, then the situation transforms from sinister to one of sheer ineptitude. With a $10 billion contract still overcoming unfortunate but not terribly unusual challenges to moving forward, why on earth did the Pentagon not pay closer attention — managing the situation to avoid even the appearance of impropriety? And if such poor oversight is happening now, who’s to say that the procurement itself was written in such a way to ensure fair competition and to meet the demands of the Department of Defense for a cloud infrastructure that can serve the needs of the war fighter?
I’m not the only one asking that question it appears. We just learned defense appropriators in the House of Representatives intend to strip funding from the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud computing program, arguing "that this approach may lock the Department of Defense into a single provider for potentially as long as ten years.”
If I was a betting person, I’d say that the acquisition strategy will likely move forward. The court will dig, the Pentagon watchdogs will inquire, and in the end the official decision-makers will say that while perhaps proper care was not taken and certain additional firewalls may need to be put in, the requirements are just and dictate that Microsoft and AWS should be the last two companies standing.
Regardless, can the Pentagon afford to be this sloppy? Should we not be concerned that enough red flags have sprouted out of this competition to warrant multiple lawsuits and program delays? It’s high time DoD and industry learn that perception is reality. In an interview with Defense News Deputy Editor Aaron Mehta, Chris Lynch, founder of the Defense Digital Service that established the requirements for JEDI said this: “Nothing comes for free. You can’t make a substantial change at the Department of Defense without pushing really hard on some things that need to be pushed.”
Fair enough, but let’s not throw due diligence out the window. As one former defense official said to me: “The optics sure suck.”
Jill Aitoro was editor of Defense News. She was also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brought over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.