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Meet America’s newest military giant: Amazon

Published: October 8, 2019
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In July, when President Donald Trump was in the Oval Office with the Dutch prime minister, he took a few moments to answer questions from reporters. His comments, in typical fashion, covered disparate subjects—from job creation to the “squad” of congresswomen he attacks regularly to sanctions against Turkey. Then a reporter asked him about an obscure Pentagon contract called JEDI, and whether he planned to intervene in it.

“Which one is that?” Trump asked. “The Amazon?”

The reporter was referring to a lucrative and soon-to-be-awarded contract to provide cloud computing services to the Department of Defense. It is worth as much as $10 billion, and Amazon has long been considered the front-runner. But the deal was under intense scrutiny from rivals who said the bid process was biased toward the e-commerce giant.

“It’s a very big contract,” said Trump. “One of the biggest ever given having to do with the cloud and having to do with a lot of other things. And we’re getting tremendous, really, complaints from other companies, and from great companies. Some of the greatest companies in the world are complaining about it.”

Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM, he continued, were all bristling.

“So we’re going to take a look at it. We’ll take a very strong look at it.”

Shortly afterwards, the Pentagon put out an announcement: the contract was on hold until the bid process had been through a thorough review.

Many saw it as yet another jab by Trump at his nemesis Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post. Since arriving in the White House, Trump has regularly lashed out at Bezos over Twitter—blaming him for negative press coverage, criticizing Amazon’s tax affairs, and even griping about the company’s impact on the US Postal Service.

After all, until just a few months ago most Americans had never heard of JEDI, much less cared about it. Compared with efforts to build large fighter aircraft or hypersonic missiles—the kinds of headline military projects we’re used to hearing about—the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure program seemed downright boring. Its most exciting provisions include off-site data centers, IT systems, and web-based applications.

Perhaps it’s equally mundane that Amazon would be in the running for such a contract. It is, after all, the world’s leading provider of cloud computing; its Amazon Web Services (AWS) division generated more than $25 billion in revenue in 2018.

But Trump’s diatribe wasn’t just about a contract war between a handful of technology companies. It was a spotlight on the changing nature of Amazon and its role in national security and politics. The company has spent the past decade carefully working its way toward the heart of Washington, and today—not content with being the world’s biggest online retailer—it is on the brink of becoming one of America’s largest defense contractors.

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