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September 8, 2020

“Corrupted by the President’s Self-Interest” — Amazon’s JEDI Wrath

"We have spent far too much time... striving to gain access to data for training our algorithms, updating fielded models, site by site, deriving ad-hoc solutions to bring real-world data back to allow dynamic retraining of fielded models, and cobbling together one-off, bespoke cloud solutions to meet mission requirements"

By CBR Staff Writer

“A ‘do-over’ for Microsoft to fix its non-compliant proposal”; “a flawed, biased, and politically corrupted decision”; “a dangerous precedent that threatens the integrity of the federal procurement system”; “blatant cronyism” — these are not the shrill ravings of some tinfoil hat-wearing blogger ranting on Pastebin or Reddit, but the efforts of the public affairs team at Amazon, as fury in the company at losing out on a “$10 billion”* cloud contract with the Pentagon continues to mount.

The series of excoriating comments, made in a blog on September 4, came hours after the Department of Defence (DoD) affirmed its prior Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract award to Microsoft. That contract is to unify and operate a DoD-wide enterprise cloud architecture, which will be used to underpin AI-powered operations and help build an “all-domain digital force”.

Amazon’s AWS holds that political intervention driven by President Trump’s vehement dislike of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos swayed the decision and the award to Microsoft “threatens the integrity of the federal procurement system” owing to clear signs of political intervention and procurement process failings.

Amazon challenged the award, with the Court of Federal Claims determining on February 13, 2020 that AWS’s protest had merit. In Amazon’s words, this meant that Microsoft’s proposal “was likely deficient and ineligible for award”. (Microsoft and the Department of Defense have, startling, argued, that the “public interest in national security should outweigh plaintiff’s concern for the integrity of the procurement process”, as judge Patricia Campbell-Smith noted in February)

The issue was pushed back to the DoD to review. Everything was fine, it said on Friday. The process had been tickety-boo and the only issue was the Preliminary Injunction Order issued by the Court delaying work. (The DoD has argued in court filings that delay to the JEDI programme will result in “unrecoverable financial harm” costing it between $5 million and $7 million per month of delay, while Microsoft has publicly sniped at Amazon for trying to “force a do-over to rescue its failed bid”.)

Amazon suggests that the saga is unlikely to end soon, warning darkly that “we have grown more confident in our position as more information has come to light (some of this information has been made public, other parts not yet).”

In April, meanwhile, the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General said his investigations into the probity of the award had been obstructed under Trump’s orders to “protect presidential communications”. His 317-page report was described by Democrat Congressman Adam Schiff as revealing “corruption in plain sight”.

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“The question we continue to ask ourselves is whether the President of the United States should be allowed to use the budget of the Department of Defense to pursue his own personal and political ends?” asks Amazon bluntly, adding: “We will continue pursuing a fair, objective, and impartial review.” The contract looks likely to remain bogged down in the courts for some time yet.

What is JEDI? 

As Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, the director of the Joint A.I. Center, or the JAIC put it in a Q&A in late 2019: “JEDI will provide on-demand, elastic compute at scale, data at scale, substantial network and transport advantages, DevOps and a secure operating environment at all classification levels. We have spent far too much time, over the past two years, striving to gain access to data for training our algorithms, updating fielded models, site by site, deriving ad-hoc solutions to bring real-world data back to allow dynamic retraining of fielded models, and cobbling together one-off, bespoke cloud solutions to meet mission requirements.”

(The Pentagon boasts some 600+ different cloud initiatives, spanning 3.4 million end users, four million endpoint devices, 1,700 different data centres).

Shanahan added: “In this future high-end fight we envision a world of algorithmic warfare and autonomy where competitive advantage goes to the side that understands how to harness 5G, A.I., enterprise cloud and quantum, when quantum’s available, into a viable operational model, all part of the department’s transformation from a hardware — hardware-centric to an all-domain digital force.  This digital modernization is a war-fighting imperative that demands a palpable sense of urgency, and it’s one that will be fueled by an enterprise cloud solution.”

*Is it really a $10 billion contract? The figure is media shorthand for “potentially up to…” that Computer Business Review has also been guilty of deploying. Strictly, as the DoD’s CIO has noted, “the winner of this actually receives $1 million, not $10 billion. It is a two-year contract with the possibility for a three-year plus two-year extension. If you were to execute all the extensions, and if we were to pivot workloads, we believe it could, over a 10-year period, generate up to $10 billion”. 

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