Pentagon watchdog rebuts critics of JEDI contract probe

Republicans have alleged DoD favored Amazon, even though Microsoft won the bid

Visitors arrive at the cloud pavilion of Amazon Web Services at a trade fair in Hanover, Germany, in 2016. Charges that the Pentagon favored AWS for a cloud computing contract it did not win have not abated.  (Sean Gallup/Getty Images file photo)
Visitors arrive at the cloud pavilion of Amazon Web Services at a trade fair in Hanover, Germany, in 2016. Charges that the Pentagon favored AWS for a cloud computing contract it did not win have not abated. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images file photo)
Posted September 23, 2021 at 4:48pm

The Defense Department’s acting inspector general is pushing back against politically charged criticism that his office mishandled a 2020 probe of alleged corruption in a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract.

The IG had looked into allegations of corruption in the process of choosing a contractor for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, award, including charges that the Pentagon favored one bidder in particular, Amazon Web Services. The IG’s review found no conflicts or biases affected the decision. 

Microsoft, not Amazon, won that 2019 bid, and the program has since been replaced by another competition for Pentagon cloud computing. Nonetheless, a chorus of Republican lawmakers continues to assail both the original contracting process and the watchdog’s subsequent exoneration of Pentagon officials. 

Now Sean O’Donnell, the acting Pentagon IG, has issued a rebuttal in the form of a Sept. 15 letter to Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who had written O’Donnell on Aug. 31 and accused his office of “unacceptable” conduct in its review.  

O’Donnell, in his new letter, told Grassley that “the information forming the basis of your correspondence lacks important context and objectivity.” 

The 317-page IG report on the cloud contract, O’Donnell said, manifests “commitment to the values of integrity, independence and excellence.”

O’Donnell’s reply is posted on Grassley’s website but has not previously been reported in the press.

A spokesman for Grassley said the senator declined to comment.

‘Screw Amazon’

Grassley is one of numerous GOP politicians, including former President Donald Trump, who have accused the Pentagon of favoring Amazon Web Services in the JEDI competition. Oracle and IBM were among the other bidders.

Trump has frequently criticized Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, which broke numerous stories about the Trump administration. 

On July 18, 2019, Trump told reporters: “I’m getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon; they’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid. I will be asking them to take a look at it very closely to see what’s going on, because I have had very few things where there’s been such complaining.”

Less than two weeks later, the Pentagon put the process on hold, before eventually announcing in October 2019 that Microsoft had won.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote in a book published in 2019 that Trump had told him to “screw Amazon.”

Editing disagreements

The GOP campaign of criticism — against the JEDI contracting process and the IG’s subsequent vindication of Pentagon officials — continues today, even though Amazon did not win the JEDI contract and it was canceled anyway.

The critics say that these subsequent decisions do not change certain facts. First, they say, Amazon’s influence was improper leading up to the 2019 decision. And, they add, the IG’s 2020 review of the case was flawed, principally because it omitted key information and because of what Grassley’s Aug. 31 letter called “selective editing” of the report’s contents.

O’Donnell replied to Grassley that Amazon’s influence was not unethical and, even if it had been, it manifestly had no effect on the award decision. Second, O’Donnell argued, no allegations that the IG withheld critical information from its report stand up to scrutiny. 

Defense bill amendments

When House committees met this summer to consider their Defense appropriations and National Defense Authorization Act bills, Republican members unsuccessfully sought to amend both measures with mandates that O’Donnell’s office turn over all records it collected during its review. 

Indiana’s Jim Banks offered one such amendment during the House Armed Services Committee’s NDAA markup earlier this month. It was rejected on a 28-30 party-line vote, illustrating how the matter has become partisan. 

“There have been allegations of corruption since JEDI’s inception, and recently the DoD Inspector General’s report has come under criticism,” Banks said during the markup.

During the Defense appropriations markup in July, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, offered and then withdrew a similar JEDI amendment.

“This is about congressional oversight, and this is about the integrity of the process,” Stewart said during the markup.

Republican lawmakers who have criticized the Pentagon’s handling of the JEDI contract and the IG’s review also include Reps. Steve Womack of Arkansas, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Ken Buck of Colorado, and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. 

O’Donnell told Grassley that the IG has provided Congress with documents it used in its review and published some on its website. The Pentagon controls some of the documents and is reviewing them for possible release, he said.

Leaked emails

The congressional campaign of criticism of the JEDI process was energized by several news stories in July. 

Joseph Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general, provided news organizations with internal Pentagon emails on the JEDI process that were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, according to the accounts.

The reports failed to reveal anything that most observers would consider unethical about officials’ behavior, but they contributed to the congressional clamor for more information about the issue. 

The emails suggested, for example, that Sally Donnelly, a former Mattis adviser who had done consulting work for Amazon, had favored that company during the run-up to the JEDI award. 

But O’Donnell told Grassley that Donnelly had no role in or influence on the decision-making process and that her behavior was not unethical. The same was said about Mattis.

“And even if we were to assume, again for argument’s sake, that Ms. Donnelly had been substantially involved and had overtly advocated for Amazon, the DoD ultimately awarded the contract to Microsoft, not Amazon,” O’Donnell wrote.

O’Donnell pointed out that the Government Accountability Office and the courts have rejected several companies’ arguments about conflicts of interest in the process.

In short, O’Donnell said, Grassley’s contentions in his August letter “do not bear on” the Pentagon’s decision on the 2019 contract.