Newly Uncovered Emails Intensify Republican Senator's Unease About DOD’s Cloud Contracts

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 14: Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and fellow Senate Republicans hold a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on December 14, 2021 .

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 14: Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and fellow Senate Republicans hold a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on December 14, 2021 . Chip Somodevilla / Getty

A senior senator continued a back-and-forth with auditors over the Defense Department's now-canceled JEDI contract.

Concerns regarding the Pentagon inspector general’s handling of a 2020 investigation into alleged corruption associated with the multi-billion dollar Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract must be resolved before a selection is made for the replacement Joint Warfighter Cloud Capability program, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, argued on Friday.

In his latest letter amid ongoing, heated correspondence with the federal watchdog, Grassley elaborated on previous issues he’s raised—and detailed new allegations from whistleblowers that he said suggest the office’s review process and final report are “materially deficient.”

“It might be that the Defense Department [OIG] just has some clarification to provide, or it might be that they fell down on the job and are too embarrassed to clean up mistakes,” Grassley noted in a statement accompanying his letter. “There are clear problems with the lack of investigation of an advisor’s connections to Amazon Web Services and the inexplicable blockade of legitimate document requests from Congress.”

DOD conceptualized its now-scrapped $10 billion JEDI contract in 2017, with the ultimate aim of providing a single enterprise commercial cloud offering across all classification levels and for all staff. That acquisition took years and involved complex litigation. Though officially awarded to Microsoft twice, JEDI was held up in multiple lawsuits and protests. 

Last year, DOD canceled the contract amid a protest from AWS over various issues, including some with its selection process. Later on, officials confirmed that AWS, Microsoft, Google and Oracle would compete for its replacement JWCC deal for an enterprisewide commercial cloud.

Following a concerted push from Republican lawmakers, the Pentagon’s OIG in 2019 initially launched a review of DOD’s steering of the JEDI procurement and an investigation into proposed misconduct in its award-making procedure. In April 2020, the watchdog released a 300-page investigation concluding that the Pentagon’s decision to award the contract to a single company “was reasonable.” That report did not, however, issue a definitive answer regarding whether White House officials influenced the DOD’s decision.

Grassley began looking into JEDI in 2019, and in August of 2021—after the contract was ousted for JWCC—sent an 18-page letter to DOD’s Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell claiming that the office “withheld evidence and mischaracterized key elements of its report,” and “selectively edited emails” by some of the key personnel associated with the process. Rebutting the criticism, O’Donnell responded that “the information forming the basis of [Grassley’s] correspondence lacks important context and objectivity.”

In his letter Friday, Grassley called that “an interesting assertion, given the trove of requested information and ‘context’ your office and the DOD refuse to provide.” The lawmaker noted that he obtained new information in records via Freedom of Information Act requestors that were either heavily redacted or not provided at all when requested from the watchdog.

Pointing to emails accessed in that manner, Grassley wrote that “the JEDI report attributed a much broader conflict of interest assessment to [DOD’s Standards of Conduct Office] than was actually performed.” The Congressman also referenced Sally Donnelly, a senior advisor to the former Defense secretary, who faced criticism for allegedly favoring AWS amid the procurement process.

Grassley said newly obtained emails from Donnelly show that while at DOD “she and a current AWS sales representative discussed ‘landmines [to] avoid’ during an upcoming ‘sales pitch’ with the” Defense Secretary, as well as other comments that the OIG’s report did not mention. The lawmaker added that DOD’s failure to relay such information illustrates “that conflicts infected the JEDI procurement process and Donnelly should have been recused from all JEDI matters in light of her previous work for AWS.”

After laying out multiple other frustrations, Grassley asked for a meeting to address persistent concerns. 

DOD OIG Public Affairs Specialist Megan Reed confirmed on Tuesday that office officials received Grassley’s letter and “are reviewing the contents and his concerns.”

“As a matter of practice, the DOD OIG does not comment on our internal communications with members of Congress, and will continue to work with Senator Grassley closely on this matter,” Reed told Nextgov.