By Eric Felten
In June 2019, Susan Gordon stood on a stage at the Washington Convention Center. Behind her loomed three giant letters, “AWS,” the abbreviation for Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing division of the giant Internet retailer. After three decades at the Central Intelligence Agency, Gordon had risen to one of the top jobs in the cloak-and-dagger world: principal deputy director of national intelligence. From that perch she publicly extolled the virtues of Amazon Web Services and the cloud services the tech giant provides the CIA.
She told the crowd that the intelligence community’s 2013 decision to sign a multi-year, $600 million contract with AWS for cloud computing “will stand as one of those that caused the greatest leap forward. … The investment we made so many years ago in order to be able to try and harness the power of the cloud with a partner who wanted to learn and grow with us has left us not only ready for today but positioned for tomorrow.”
The agreement was also a “real game-changer,” said André Pienaar, founder and CEO of a tech firm called C5 Capital, whose business includes reselling AWS services. “When the CIA said they were going adopt the AWS cloud platform,” Pienaar said at another AWS event. “People said if the U.S. intelligence community has the confidence to feel secure on the AWS cloud, why can’t we?”
Gordon left government in August 2019, two months after her AWS summit talk. In November 2019 she became senior advisor to a consultancy with close Amazon connections and in April joined the board of defense contractor with extensive AWS business.
Gordon is one of scores of former government officials who have landed lucrative work in Big Tech.
The synergy between Washington and Silicon Valley can be seen as the latest manifestation of the Beltway’s revolving door. But the size and scope of Big Tech—and the increasing dependence of government on its products and talent—suggest something more: the rise of a Digital-Intelligence Complex. Like the Military-Industrial Complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against in 1961, it represents a symbiotic relationship in which the lines between one and the other are blurred.
Gordon’s history illustrates this development. Her endorsement of Amazon was important to the company: AWS touted the success of the CIA deal as a prime reason it believed the Pentagon should award the company a 10-year, $10 billion contract for cloud computing for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI. That bid has been mired in litigation as competing tech companies have accused the government of insider dealing, political interference, and other improprieties in considering and awarding the contract.
The web services side of Amazon is believed to be the most profitable part of the mammoth company. Illustrating the pride of place AWS enjoys within Amazon, Jeff Bezos recently announced he is stepping aside from his role as CEO, making room for Andy Jassy, who has been in charge of the AWS subsidiary. It’s also a prime reason Amazon chose the D.C. suburbs for the company’s new HQ2: “The D.C. tech sector is one of the fastest growing in the world,” Teresa Carlson, AWS vice president for Worldwide Public Sector and Industries, told Washington Life magazine last year. That growth is “largely driven by big U.S. government projects,” she added.
As Amazon has built that government business, AWS has had no bigger cheerleader than Gordon, who has made repeated presentations praising Amazon. In 2018, she appeared at a government/industry confab called “FedTalks.” She shared the stage with AWS Vice President for Engineering Bill Vass, who interviewed her about the work they had done together.
“Can you talk a little bit about the partnership that you’ve had with the cloud provider in this case?” Vass asked, and then added, “It’s been very tight.”
“Throughout my career, which is long, all the great advances we’ve made have been in partnership with industry,” Gordon replied. “We’ve had a partner who is as committed to our needs as we were.”
Vass said that the work with government had made AWS more attractive to private sector companies buying cloud services: “I’ve found it very satisfying to also take input from the intelligence agencies and put that into our commercial products. So, our commercial products–”
“We’re demanding,” Gordon interjected with a laugh.
“Yes, you are demanding, and that’s a good thing because it causes us to raise the bar continuously and I think that has enabled us to put those features into our commercial products,” Vass said. “And a lot of the security requirements that you’ve had just exist on our commercial products that our commercial customers can now leverage.”
“Right,” said Gordon.
“Right,” agreed Vass. “So, they sort of had that same level of security that you have, which is pretty exciting for all of our customers.
“Yeah,” Gordon enthused, “so, if you believe in the engine of a great society, you’ve just described it.”
‘I Cannot Wait to See What We Do’
Gordon also appeared in a “customer spotlight” on Oct. 7, 2015, at a gathering called the AWS re:Invent conference, where she provided Amazon with a testimonial: “With the help of partners like AWS, I cannot wait to see what we do.”
A former top federal ethics official says that if he had been asked to okay Gordon’s participation in AWS events, he would have required that she explicitly tell the audience she was not endorsing Amazon. The former official told RCI that executive branch employees have to be careful not to run afoul of regulations that prohibit “the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise.”
RealClearInvestigations attempted to contact Gordon multiple times for comment; she did not reply. RCI also asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence whether Gordon’s speech had been approved by government lawyers. “ODNI has a process in place to ensure that all engagements … are appropriately reviewed and vetted, including by ODNI ethics officials,” an ODNI spokesperson said. ODNI did not make available any materials documenting such review or vetting.
For years, AWS has been making the same argument for its cloud services that Gordon repeatedly offered: that the intelligence community’s choice of the product showed the way forward for adoption by the public and private sector alike. But Gordon was hardly the only person connected to government with strong ties to Amazon.
Sally Donnelly is a former Time magazine reporter who left journalism and who would become director of the Washington office of U.S. Central Command. She left the Department of Defense in 2012 and formed a consulting practice called SBD Advisors. One of her first clients was C5 Capital, the tech firm founded and run by André Pienaar. Soon, SBD added Amazon Web Services to its roster of customers. Donnelly’s SBD advised AWS on how to sell its services to the Pentagon.
Donnelly helped guide Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis through his Senate confirmation hearing in 2017, and was offered a position as senior adviser to Mattis. To accept, she had to sell her business. Also joining Mattis, as his deputy chief of staff, was Tony DeMartino, who had worked on the Amazon account at Donnelly’s consultancy.
Donnelly found a ready buyer for her consultancy in Pienaar’s C5 Capital, which already owned 20% of SBD. Donnelly was paid $1.56 million for her remaining 80% stake. Donnelly received the payments in $390,000 chunks, the majority during her time at the Pentagon.
While Donnelly and DeMartino were working for Defense Secretary Mattis, the Pentagon was considering and comparing the companies competing for all or part of the $10 billion JEDI contract. Among the competitors was AWS. Two of the other companies vying for JEDI business, Oracle and IBM, each complained to the Government Accountability Office that they had been cut out of a fair chance at the contract. That would lead to an investigation by the DoD’s inspector general, the details of which were published last April. “The complaints we received alleged, among other issues, that Secretary Mattis and Ms. Donnelly provided preferential treatment to Amazon,” the IG said.
One of the events Amazon’s cloud computing competitors complained about was a March 31, 2017, private dinner Mattis attended in London. Hosted by retired British general Graeme Lamb at 5 Hertford Street (a private club regularly described as “secretive”), the dinner had fewer than a dozen guests. Among them were Donnelly, Amazon Web Services V.P. Carlson, and C5 Capital’s Pienaar.
Interviewed by the inspector general about the dinner, Mattis described Pienaar as a “friend.” As for Carlson, he said he had never met her before the London gathering and was “not certain why Teresa Carlson was included,” but offered that “Sally [Donnelly] knew Teresa.” Donnelly told the IG that she had no “insight” into why Carlson was at the dinner.
But the notion that Carlson was an unknown mystery guest is not supported by sworn testimony given to the DoD Inspector General, transcripts of which have been acquired by RealClearInvestigations. Six weeks before the London dinner, DeMartino had emailed Carlson, writing, “We obviously would like all our friends around us going forward.” Asked by the Inspector General what he had meant, DeMartino explained the Secretary had “a list of the people to fill jobs in the Department of Defense.” The White House had its own list, and “there was a negotiation” going on. “So,” DeMartino answered the I.G., “that note to Teresa was that she was on Secretary Mattis’ list for a potential job.” RCI reached out to Mattis, asking why Carlson was on his list for a “senior position” at the DoD if he did not know her and had never met her. Mattis did not respond.
The dinner’s host, Lamb, is a partner at C5 Capital. The dinner opened the door to Amazon with Mattis. Los Angeles Air Force Base Space and Missile A few weeks later, someone from Amazon called Mattis’ staff and told them that at the dinner in London, the secretary of defense had “expressed interest in meeting with Jeff Bezos.”
There was a question among the military bureaucrats whether Mattis should meet with Amazon’s founder. So Donnelly prepared an internal memo listing reasons for going ahead with the proposed get-together. Among them: “Bezos owns the Washington Post.” Donnelly touted his accomplishments: “Amazon is one of the most successful start-ups in the history of the U.S. economy,” she wrote. “Amazon has revolutionized delivery and consumer service.” And then there was the product: “The Amazon cloud is the foundation of all Amazon’s businesses and allows unprecedented speed.” She also made the argument top intelligence official Sue Gordon repeated at Amazon sales conventions—that the CIA uses Amazon’s cloud.
Mattis met with various tech executives, including Bezos, on a West Coast trip. But he also met privately again with Bezos, over dinner in Washington the evening of Jan. 17, 2018. The only others at the dinner were Carlson and Donnelly.
The inspector general concluded in April 2020 that, even with their connections to Amazon, neither Donnelly nor DeMartino had acted unethically. The IG seemed more persuaded that illegitimate influence, if there had been any, had come from a Bezos-hating President Trump, who reportedly told Mattis to “screw Amazon.”
By the time the IG report came out, Mattis was no longer secretary of defense. And Sally Donnelly and Tony DeMartino had already left the Pentagon to start up a new consulting firm, Pallas Advisors. Teresa Carlson subsequently married André Pienaar.
The JEDI contract was eventually awarded to Microsoft. Amazon is asking a federal court to overturn the Pentagon’s decision. An AWS spokesperson told RealClearInvestigations that the DoD is attempting “to avoid a meaningful and transparent review of the JEDI contract award.”
In August 2019, Sue Gordon resigned as principal deputy director of national intelligence. Her private sector career has flourished. Last April, she joined the board of defense contractor CACI. According to its website, “CACI is an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Premier Consulting Partner, Public Sector Partner, and Authorized Reseller.” The company brags of its “healthy revenue-generating consulting business on AWS.”
It’s arguable that, given the far reach of AWS in Washington, it would be hard for Gordon to find post-government employment without there being some connection with Amazon or AWS. That said, Gordon is not entirely in the AWS orbit. She consults with Microsoft. Still, the most interesting private company Gordon has gone to work for is one founded by “consultants” with longstanding AWS connections. Gordon is now a senior adviser for the company Sally Donnelly and Tony DeMartino formed after they left the Pentagon: Pallas Advisors.
If it appears there is a steadily revolving door between tech companies and national security workers and officials, it may be because Gordon is in favor of exactly that. In an interview with Wired magazine when she was still in office, Gordon advocated what Wired described as “more of a revolving door.” Gordon was characterized as envisioning “a new paradigm for sharing talented workers between the government and the private sector.” According to Wired, she claimed that techies should start in government where they can learn what the problems and challenges are. They should move over to the private sector where they will have more freedom to innovate. “And then when they are ready to slow down and leave the rat race,” Wired quotes her as saying, “they can return to government.”
Gordon calls this “cross-pollination” and “talent-sharing.”
Critics of tech industry power and influence point out that Big Tech is now among the biggest employers of lobbyists, hiring primarily those who formerly worked for government. In 2010 Amazon fielded eight lobbyists. Last year the company flooded the zone with 118, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This may or may not be good for government, which can’t afford to fall behind on the latest technologies. But it is clearly good for government workers who leave for the private sector, especially those who had been vocal “partners” and advocates of tech.
This article was written by Eric Felten for RealClearInvestigations.