U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper speaks on the second day of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.

U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper speaks on the second day of the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. AP / Jens Meyer

Esper Says White House 'Never' Pressured Him on JEDI

Denying claims that Trump meddled, Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he alone chose to review the $10 billion cloud contract.

MUNICH – Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he never felt pressured by the White House last year to review the Pentagon’s controversial $10 billion contract to build the military’s first giant cloud network.

His comment comes two days after a federal judge blocked the JEDI contract from moving forward in order to assess whether President Donald Trump had undue influence on its award.

Esper said he made the fateful August decision to stop and review the Pentagon’s contracting process after meeting with members of Congress and seeing media reports about the decision to award such a large project to a single service provider.

“I never felt pressure from the White House,” Esper told reporters at the Munich Security Conference. The secretary said he would not discuss the details of his conversations with the president or White House staff at the time.

“The decision to conduct a review early on is a decision I made — I made— based on as I conducted my rounds on The Hill prior to my nomination process, I heard a lot from members on both sides of the aisle. Obviously, a lot was in the media as well,” he said. “I knew that it was something I needed to learn a great deal about.”

At the time, Amazon Web Services was generally considered the only company that could meet the Pentagon’s strict classification requirements on the project, known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI. Smaller companies and Amazon opponents protested the Pentagon’s requirements and launched public – and private – campaigns to undercut the competition. Eventually, President Trump — known for feuding with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — began to comment on the controversy. Four GOP lawmakers quickly asked the president to stay out of it. 

Ultimately, DOD ruled its contracting process was clean, but then shocked the defense industry by awarding the JEDI contract to Microsoft.

Amazon has protested the JEDI award, arguing Esper’s review favored Microsoft because it added three months to the decision timeline, already a year late, giving Microsoft time to meet more of the Pentagon’s requirements. The company also has tried to paint Esper as unqualified to oversee JEDI because of questions surrounding his decision to recuse himself from the award decision, revealing his son worked for IBM, an early bidder. 

Esper said on Saturday that he would not comment on the court’s decision this week but repeated his plea to get the new cloud for the military as fast as possible.

“It’s important to the war-fighter that we move forward with this contract. I think it makes us far more efficient on the battlefield when you can get into a cloud and overlay artificial intelligence. It improves your speed, your timeliness, you have better reliability, you can better protect data, it’s more cybersecure – so look, this is affecting the war-fighter, we have to move forward, it’s gone on too long and I hope that we can get over this latest issue and keep moving forward to deliver to our warfighter the capabilities they need to fight and win on the battlefield,” Esper said.

Amazon argues that Esper’s decision to delay the JEDI award last year undercuts the Pentagon’s argument finding a winner is an immediate imperative.

Part of the JEDI contract requires the winning company to be able to demonstrate it can post secret info to the system within six months of the award and top-secret data within 270 days. Microsoft still has to meet that requirement. Amazon already could. Instead, Microsoft secured in December the authority for its cloud, Azure, to host some classified information for 90 days, without receiving full accreditation.