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Pentagon watchdog will review Defense Secretary Austin’s failure to disclose hospitalization

Austin, 70, is still in the hospital being treated for complications from prostate cancer surgery

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attends a welcome ceremony in Seoul, South Korea on November 13, 2023.POOL (via REUTERS)

The Pentagon’s internal watchdog said Thursday he will review the secrecy surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization and why the Defense Department waited days to inform the White House that he had transferred authority to his deputy.

Austin, 70, is still in the hospital being treated for complications from prostate cancer surgery. His failure to disclose his hospitalization has been sharply criticized by members of both political parties and has led to some calls for his resignation.

In a memorandum to Austin and other top officials, Inspector General Robert P. Storch said his review would “examine the roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities, and actions” related to his hospitalization.

He said he would assess whether the Pentagon policies and procedures “are sufficient to ensure timely and appropriate notifications and the effective transition of authorities as may be warranted due to health-based or other unavailability of senior leadership,”

The incident led the White House and Pentagon immediately to formalize policies for which officials will be notified anytime a Cabinet member transfers authority to one of their deputies because they will be indisposed for any reason. This includes not just because of medical treatment but, in an example the Pentagon used this week, when the secretary is traveling and does not have immediate access to secure communications.

Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Dec. 22 and underwent surgery to treat the cancer, which was detected earlier in the month during a routine screening. He developed an infection a week later and was hospitalized Jan. 1 and admitted to intensive care.

President Joe Biden and senior administration officials were not told about Austin’s hospitalization until Jan. 4, and Austin kept the cancer diagnosis secret until Tuesday.

Austin’s secrecy also prompted criticism from Congress members on both sides of the political aisle. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that the inspector general review is “good news.” Republicans on the panel had expressed concerns that an internal review would be conducted by people involved in the episode, Wicker said.

He said Republicans still want to know more about Austin’s absence from doctors or Defense Department officials.

That the defense secretary had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance “is an occurrence of such magnitude and importance and seriousness that certainly key members of the department, including his own deputy, should be notified,” Wicker said.

It is still unclear how this will affect Austin’s job, travel or other public engagements going forward. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks has been taking on some of his day-to-day duties as he recovers.

Both the White House and Pentagon previously announced they are conducting their own reviews.

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