What the New York Times misses about DOD's meetings with Amazon

A New York Times article indicates it's scandalous that Defense Department officials met with commercial technology executives. But more of those meetings are needed and not less.

So I’m reading today’s New York Times article about connections and contacts between Amazon and the Defense Department.

Apparently some Republican lawmakers are raising concerns about meetings and email exchanges that took place been Amazon and other tech executives and senior Pentagon officials.

The article outlines several meetings and follow-up emails. The set up made it sound like these were horrible things that happened. An inspector general report on the now-cancelled JEDI cloud contract didn’t include much information about these meetings, which took place in 2017 and 2018.

The New York Times article refers to “concerns” over how that IG report “glossed over” the fact these meetings took place.

A pair of Republican lawmakers in Rep. Ken Buck (Colorado) and Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) want Amazon officials to testify under oath over whether they improperly tried to influence the JEDI contract.

It should be noted that Amazon lost the contract to Microsoft, which sparked Amazon’s lawsuit arguing that President Trump hated Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and he influenced DOD to pick Microsoft over Amazon.

DOD's IG found no evidence of that influence. But the lawsuit did lead DOD to cancel the JEDI contract last week and go with a new cloud acquisition.

The New York Times article summarizes all of that. But it then goes on to describe a series of meetings then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had with senior executives from Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google and other global technology companies during 2017 and 2018. After these meetings, DOD released a new cloud adoption strategy and JEDI came soon after that.

My problem with the article is the subtext that there was something wrong with Mattis having these meetings. Something scandalous has to be going on is what the article seems to be saying. That’s the tone I pick up anyway.

Maybe this is my bias, but I’d be more concerned if Mattis and others in government weren’t meeting with these companies. It should be a regular part of doing business for the government. They need to observe, learn and adapt what works well and efficiently in the private sector and bring it into government.

I can’t help but think about a story I heard after the CIA mistakenly bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Much of the blame fell to the use of outdated maps.

A speaker relayed how FedEx officials told DOD to use the company's maps because it had every building mapped to its precise location. They had drivers going there almost every day.

FedEx had to know precise locations because its business relies on that information. That kind of pressure, and in that case FedEx's very existence, forces commercial companies to constantly innovate.

So as the Defense Department looks to improve and transform -- something Mattis talked about from day one as defense secretary -- it makes perfect sense to go to the commercial companies driving the kind of innovation he was looking for.

Who else should he talk to but Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google? DOD has been visiting companies in Silicon Valley for the last decade. Some also argue that the federal government built Silicone Valley in the aftermath of World War II.

The New York Times article reads like it is scandalous and unethical that Mattis and others met with these executives.

But he was just doing what a good executive does -- meet the smartest people you can. If anything, the meetings should be applauded. More of them are needed.