Pentagon’s Messaging on JEDI: Without it, Our Adversaries Win and Troops Lose 

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Pentagon officials have been increasingly vocal about JEDI in recent months as the court battle continues.

Some of the Pentagon’s leading tech officials warn that further delays in the department’s planned $10 billion cloud contract could damage overall national security posture. 

For most of the past eight months, the Pentagon hasn’t said much publicly about its $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract as it fights Oracle’s charges of a tainted procurement process in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

A decision by Senior Judge Eric Bruggink is expected sometime this month and Pentagon officials have voiced concerns over what further JEDI award delays could mean for the nation’s technical edge on adversaries. As it stands, the department wants to award the contract in August and has narrowed down the bidders to Amazon Web Services and Microsoft.

Dana Deasy, the Defense Department’s chief information officer, told reporters in June that “what is keeping me awake at night—is if JEDI was to get further delayed.” Deasy said there are “an active set” of important Pentagon programs unable to maximize their potential without enterprise cloud capabilities. Some of those programs were in early stages of readying applications for cloud migration to one of the agency’s internal clouds, but a memo from Deasy put a hold on those migrations, pending JEDI’s award.

Deasy also stressed the negative impact on troops a delay on JEDI might cause. JEDI was designed to be the centerpiece to the Pentagon’s technological plans to enable more advanced technology, including artificial intelligence. The commercially built and operated cloud would host battlefield, tactical and classified data to be analyzed and used to increase the lethality and connectivity of warfighters at the tactical edge. Delays to JEDI, Deasy said, have a material impact on the emerging capabilities available to warfighters.

In late March, another top Defense official told an audience that the Defense Department’s nascent efforts in artificial intelligence will be severely limited without enterprisewise cloud capabilities. Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, who heads the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, stopped short of saying JEDI—“You can say the four letters, I cannot,” he said—but he went on to explain how JEDI impacts JAIC.

“You cannot get to true impact at scale with AI without an enterprise cloud solution,” Shanahan said.

The JAIC, which is essentially the centralized headquarters for the Pentagon’s efforts in developing AI applications and weaponry, needs a massive, scalable computing environment to run AI against the growing amounts of data and information Defense and intelligence agencies collect.

“We have so many elements of this that would be far more successful with an enterprise cloud solution than it will be with a hardware stack,” Shanahan said.

The department’s outside sentiments reflect its position in the courtroom. In a June filing, Lt. Gen. Bradford Shwedo said delays in Oracle's court case would "hamper our critical efforts in AI" and disadvantage the U.S. against adversaries who are "weaponizing their use of data." Shwedo, the chief information officer of the Joint Staff, said JEDI would be particularly useful in analyzing the troves of surveillance information collected by sensors, drones and other aircraft and satellites, and could provide troops capabilities even in areas with low or no connectivity. 

Daniel Goure, senior vice president at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based public policy research nonprofit, said Defense officials are signaling against JEDI delays for several reasons. The first, Goure said, is that the Defense Department “is already behind the power curve in a lot of ways.” 

China, for example, is investing billions in AI and does not face bureaucratic or legal challenges and oversight when it makes technological decisions, in contrast to the U.S. government. In 2018, vendors filed 2,607 bid protests and were successful about 15% of the time, but as Goure pointed out, while protests are a vital check on government’s decision-making, they also delay awards whether they are successful or not.

Secondly, Goure said the Pentagon faces a “ripple effect” if JEDI is delayed or canceled entirely.

“Any delay causes you problems in trying to award other contracts or move other workloads. If you’re trying to build the whole architecture for a new way of war and the centerpiece is JEDI, if you delay it, what do all those other pieces connect to?” Goure said. “The ripple effect across the whole software domain for the Pentagon could be profound, and as time goes on, it gets worse.”

The Contract Battle Wages On

Last August, Nextgov and sister publication Defense One published a story detailing a host of allegations contained in a 100-page dossier shopped around to various reporters. Later, some of those allegations—including those essentially alleging a conspiracy to wire the contract for leading contender Amazon Web Services—appeared in Oracle’s lawsuit.

For example, in February, Senior Judge Bruggink ordered a stay on court proceedings while the Defense Department reviewed an alleged conflict of interest that occurred when AWS rehired a former employee named Deap Ubhi, who—at the time in November 2017—had a JEDI-related role. In April, the judge lifted the stay after Defense officials, including JEDI contracting officer, Chanda Brooks, found that Ubhi had acted unethically but had not “impacted the integrity” of the JEDI contract.

Oracle later amended its lawsuit in a June filing, stating that Brooks “violated separate statutory and regulatory directives” and didn’t consider potential conflicts of interest of several Defense personnel in her role overseeing the JEDI contract.

Outside the courtroom, new allegations against AWS continue to make headlines.

Reports by the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart and Fox News’ personality Tucker Carlson highlighted a March 2017 dinner attended by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Teresa Carlson, vice president for AWS’ Worldwide Public Sector business.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the meeting was also attended by Sally Donnelly, a Mattis aide who previously consulted for Amazon, and Gen. Graeme Lamb, a retired lieutenant general with the U.K. Special Forces who is now a partner with C5 Capital, which has partnered with Amazon in the past.

According to an event organizer, Tobias Ellwood, the U.K.’s Minister for Veterans, also attended the meeting, and discussion centered on veteran care and touched on the crisis in Yemen. While the headlines bill the meeting as problematic for AWS, Lamb said in a statement to Nextgov that cloud computing and acquisition issues were never discussed.

 “We did not discuss any acquisition issues. This was not the time or the place for such matters. There was no discussion of cloud computing,” Lamb said in a statement. “The issues discussed surrounded the need to care for our veterans given the more than 18 years of almost constant fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq and in particular the rising number of suicides amongst American and British veterans. We have attended dozens of these sort of off-the-record common interests dinners over the years and this one wasn't really different from those we have attended in the past.”

Lamb said JEDI wasn’t even a concept when the meeting happened.

“In April 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense had not even considered a JEDI procurement.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the dinner helped lay the groundwork for an August 2017 meeting between Mattis and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Mattis’ two-day trip also included visits to Google’s Palo Alto campus and the offices of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, the Pentagon’s tech innovation group. 

Mattis also met with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Google CEO Eric Schmidt in 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal. Microsoft is Amazon’s chief rival for JEDI and Google, while initially interested in JEDI, eventually opted not to bid. 

Approximately one month after Mattis’ West Coast swing, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan issued a memo that outlined an enterprisewide cloud procurement. In late 2017, Nextgov first reported on a leaked JEDI strategy document that first spelled out the Pentagon’s plan for a single-award, 10-year contract. 

After the department released a draft request for proposals for JEDI, Oracle CEO Safra Catz met with President Trump in April 2018. According to Bloomberg, she criticized the government’s bidding process for JEDI in the meeting.

Regardless of the court decision, Congress—and perhaps President Trump—may factor into JEDI’s fate. Last year, Congress exercised its oversight authority on JEDI, forcing the Pentagon to justify its plan to award JEDI to a single cloud provider. The Pentagon complied and released a subsequent cloud strategy that explained JEDI will be just one of many clouds the military apparatus plans to incorporate. The House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on Defense included language in the 2020 funding bill that precludes JEDI funding until the Defense’s CIO provides a report "on how the department plans to eventually transition to a multi-cloud environment."

Yet some members of Congress remain unsatisfied. 

In an appearance on Carlson’s show on Fox, influential Republican Rep. Mark Meadows called the Amazon allegations “incredible” and called for an investigation. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, asked acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a late June letter to hold off on awarding JEDI until an investigation is completed. According to the Associated Press, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said JEDI’s bidding process should be restarted. 

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., who called for an inspector general investigation into JEDI in October, re-upped his concerns in a letter to President Trump last month. According to Bloomberg, Womack sought Trump’s “personal attention” in JEDI, and asked him to intervene as he did in Boeing’s Air Force One deal. Boeing, however, already held the Air Force One contract, while JEDI is still an active procurement.