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Thomas Kurian, chief executive officer of cloud services at Google LLC, speaks during the Google Cloud Next ’19 event in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. The conference brings together industry experts to discuss the future of cloud computing.

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At Google’s weekly all-hands meeting on Thursday afternoon, CEO Sundar Pichai and cloud boss Thomas Kurian tried to address concerns about the company’s potential pursuit of a multibillion-dollar cloud deal with the Defense Department.

A question about Google’s involvement with the government’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC) program received so many votes by employees in an internal system called Dory that it was brought up to executives at the meeting.

Pichai read aloud the question, which referenced a New York Times report from earlier this month. That story said Google is actively pursuing JWCC, after the Pentagon canceled a prior deal, the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract, in July. The question received almost 1,000 employee votes.

CNBC obtained audio of the event, known as TGIF, and viewed a screenshot of the question.

“The NYT reports that Google is aggressively pursuing the DoD’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability despite not bidding on its predecessor (JEDI) because it doesn’t align with its AI principles (no work on weapons or technologies that cause harm),” Pichai said, reading from the question on Dory. “What changed? What is the bid about and why is it ok?”

Kurian responded by attempting to differentiate the contract from JEDI, a $10 billion deal that produced a legal battle between Amazon and Microsoft before the government canceled the contract altogether.

“Recently, there’s been some discussion regarding Google’s interest in participating in the framework,” said Kurian, who joined Google in 2018 following a lengthy career at Oracle.

“If selected as one of the compliant vendors, we are proud to work with the DoD to help modernize their operations,” Kurian said, appearing to read from a script. “There will be many areas where our product capabilities and our engineering expertise can be brought to bear with no conflict to Google’s AI principles.”

Google established its AI principles after declining to renew a government contract called Project Maven, which helped the government analyze and interpret drone videos using artificial intelligence. Prior to ending the deal, several thousand employees signed a petition and dozens resigned in opposition to Google’s involvement.

Google dropped out of the bidding for the JEDI contract in part because Kurian “couldn’t be sure” it would align with the company’s AI principles, he said at the time.

Kurian on Thursday described how the DoD is the largest employer in the world with nearly 3 million employees. He said the JWCC is designed as a “procurement framework” for the 28 main agencies within the DoD. He also highlighted other work Google does for the U.S. government, such as helping agencies with weather predictions, working with the military to detect cancer and helping the Air Force with aircraft maintenance.

Pichai and Kurian are navigating a sensitive issue for Google, as the company tries to bolster its cloud-computing division with high-profile deals while also placating an increasingly vocal and politically charged employee base. While Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are still major shareholders in parent company Alphabet, they retired from their executive positions in 2019, leading to a dramatic cultural shift for a company that was once known for its idealism.

Kurian isn’t expecting all of his staffers to get behind him on the JWCC.

“We understand that not every Googler will agree with this decision,” Kurian said. “But we believe Google Cloud should seek to serve the government where it is capable of doing so and where the work meets Google’s principles and our company’s values.”

‘No single vendor’

Google went into greater detail on the topic in a blog post that Kurian published Thursday evening. In the post, Kurian described the JWCC as “essential to the success of the Department and the government in reducing costs, driving innovation, increasing productivity, and enhancing cybersecurity.” He added that the DoD should solicit assistance from numerous vendors, including Google Cloud.

Kurian underscored that point at the meeting, telling employees that multiple vendors will be in on the deal, potentially giving each the option to choose where they want to focus.

“That means no single vendor has to do all the work contemplated under the framework,” he said.

Kurian said Google hasn’t put in a bid yet, and doesn’t know all the details because the request for proposal hasn’t been sent by the government. He didn’t address one specific detail from the Times story, which said Google’s cloud unit has already made the work a priority declaring it a “Code Yellow,” which allows the company to pull engineers onto the military project.

A Google spokesperson told CNBC in an email that a “multi-cloud strategy” is the best solution for the government and said the company will evaluate “future bid opportunities” with its public sector customers, including the DoD.

Pichai chimed in at Thursday’s meeting to tell employees that he hoped the discussion helped clarify the company’s position.

“I think we are strongly committed to working with the government in a way that’s consistent with our AI principles,” he said. 

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