Amazon, Justice Department spar over redactions in Pentagon cloud lawsuit

An aerial view of the Pentagon in Washington as seen on March 27, 2008.


By AARON GREGG | The Washington Post | Published: December 14, 2019

The Justice Department is pushing back on Amazon's decision to withhold certain information from the public in its lawsuit over President Donald Trump's alleged meddling in procurement matters.

Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing division of Amazon, is suing to overturn a Defense Department decision to give its competitor Microsoft a massive, taxpayer-funded cloud computing contract. The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, known as JEDI, is a project to centralize the military's cloud computing systems in the hands of a commercial cloud provider. It is worth up to $10 billion over a 10-year period.

In its initial complaint, Amazon accused Trump of employing "repeated public and behind-the-scenes attacks" against it, saying he acted on a grudge against Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos, who separately owns The Washington Post. In blunt, unsparing language, Amazon's attorneys cast Trump's intervention as more than just a slight against the company. They said the president's actions could put the entire government procurement system at risk.

"The stakes are high," they wrote. "The question is whether the President of the United States should be allowed to use the budget of DoD to his own personal and political ends."

But they also withheld key bits of information from the company's initial legal complaint, leading the Justice Department to call its initial redactions "overbroad" in a brief filed Wednesday. According to the Justice Department's filing, the three parties failed to come to an agreement about which portions of Amazon's complaint should be available to the public, leading the court to unseal Amazon's preferred version.

In one section of the complaint, Amazon's scores on seven different evaluation criteria assigned to it by the government's source-selection team were redacted, while Microsoft's corresponding scores were made public. Microsoft's "total evaluated price" of $678 million for the contract itself was displayed publicly in the complaint, while Amazon's corresponding evaluation was redacted.

"AWS has designated information regarding the Government's evaluation of its own proposal as protected, while declining to protect the Government's assessments of Microsoft's proposal," the Justice Department wrote. "AWS should not be permitted to use the protective order to create an information imbalance in the public record that could itself negatively impact the competitive process in the event of renewed competition for this or other procurements in the future."

The amount by which Amazon's price increased when the Defense Department made an 11th-hour policy change that was a key part of Trump's alleged meddling in the procurement was redacted in the complaint. And "Central Intelligence Agency" was repeatedly redacted, even though Amazon's status as the CIA's primary cloud provider has been repeatedly publicized in hundreds of news articles over the past six years. And some of Amazon's other redactions seemed somewhat arbitrary, such as covering up the byline and web address of a news article.

The Justice Department noted that it would not be in a position to place "substantive" injunctions on the JEDI project until early February. Even so, Amazon reserved the right to seek an injunction. Amazon has until Jan. 17 to request discovery in the case.

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