President Donald Trump looks to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper during a ceremony in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 23, 2019.

President Donald Trump looks to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper during a ceremony in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 23, 2019. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Esper’s Foot-Dragging on Mega-Cloud Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test

The new defense secretary needs to stand up to his boss, who is inappropriately meddling in a Pentagon contract.

Newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Mark Esper claims that the Pentagon’s $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure mega-cloud-computing contract, once scheduled to be awarded to Amazon or Microsoft by month’s end, must be placed on hold until he can review it. Why?

Pentagon chief information officer Dana Deasy backs him up, claiming that JEDI is such a large acquisition program that any newly appointed secretary would do the same. But this reasoning does not pass the smell test, and actually contradicts Deasy’s previous statements. Esper is not coming to this cold. For the past two years, he has been Secretary of the Army, and then acting Secretary of Defense, and therefore should be familiar with how the high-profile, groundbreaking JEDI program has moved along. There is no doubt that he has placed the contract on hold to appease President Trump. 

As widely reported, the president helped amplify accusations, by losing bidder Oracle, that the JEDI requirements inappropriately favored Amazon. The chief executive thus potentially undermined the procurement process because he despises Amazon’s leader, Jeff Bezos, and Bezos’ Washington Post, about which he often complains on Twitter.

Not only is it inappropriate for Trump, or any president for that matter, to get involved in and thus politicize the procurement process, but the complaints that Oracle made to him about Amazon have already been adjudicated over the past 18 months by three unbiased groups: the Pentagon’s Internal Review Group, the Government Accountability Office, and a federal court. On July 12, Judge Eric Bruggink of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled that Amazon did not unduly influence the design of the contract. A Pentagon spokesman noted that the ruling reaffirmed the Department’s position that the JEDI procurement process was fair, full, and open, and executed in compliance with the law. 

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Not only is this delay unnecessary, but if it goes on too long it could reduce military readiness and endanger our troops who need cloud capacity. Because of Oracle’s complaints, the contract is already a year behind schedule. Air Force Lt. General John Shanahan, who runs the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, has publicly stressed that troops in the field need JEDI as soon as possible because the Chinese are moving along at a rapid pace. Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith echoed this warning after the federal judge’s ruling, but before Esper was confirmed. 

Esper’s delay will jeopardize the troops in the field and undermine his ability to be an effective Secretary of Defense. The best secretaries have been willing to stand up to presidents when the chief executive focused more on politics than on security.

For example, Secretary Robert McNamara contradicted President Kennedy’s campaign claims that there were bomber gaps and missile gaps between us and the Soviet Union and therefore drastically reduced the number of land and sea-based nuclear missiles the military wanted. Secretary Melvin Laird accelerated the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam beyond the number President Nixon wanted in order to limit the number of casualties in a lost cause. Secretary Harold Brown increased defense spending beyond the amount that President Carter indicated was necessary in his campaign because of the drastic reductions made in the defense budget by the Nixon administration.

If Esper wants to put the troops first and be a successful secretary, he needs to award the JEDI contract to either Microsoft or Amazon as soon as possible. If Trump tries to overrule him, he should threaten to resign. If Trump wants anything less than a Bezos-run JEDI, it’s probably the headache of finding yet more candidates to become acting and permanent Secretary of Defense.