Pentagon chief is put on the defensive: Lawmakers confront Austin about his secret hospital stay

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at the committee hearing that ‘at no time during my treatment or recovery were there any gaps in authorities’

Lloyd Austin
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 29, 2024.Evelyn Hockstein (REUTERS)

Under fire for his secret hospital stay last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Thursday that the Defense Department has made changes to improve the notification process if he must transfer decision-making authorities due to illness or lack of communications.

He said there were no gaps in control of the department or the nation’s security because “at all times, either I or the deputy secretary was in a position to conduct the duties of my office.”

Democrats and Republicans criticized his failure to quickly let President Joe Biden and other senior leaders know about his hospitalization for complications from prostate cancer surgery.

“It’s totally unacceptable that it took three days to inform the president of the United States that the secretary of defense was in the hospital and not in control of the Pentagon,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, adding that wars were raging in Ukraine and Israel at the time. “The chain of command doesn’t work when the commander in chief doesn’t know who to call.”

Rogers, R-Ala., and others said someone needs to be held accountable.

The incident led to concerns about lapses in the command and control of the armed forces, including the country’s nuclear arsenal.

The Pentagon has said Austin’s staff notified Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks when Austin went into intensive care in early January. But that only raised questions about why Austin was didn’t do that himself and whether that suggested there was a gap in control.

Austin said at the committee hearing that “at no time during my treatment or recovery were there any gaps in authorities.” He offered a mea culpa that mirrored remarks early this month at a news briefing, saying he takes full responsibility for the communications failures and that he has apologized to Biden.

Acknowledging the breakdown in communications, he added, “I should have promptly informed the president, my team, Congress, and the American people about my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Again: We did not handle this right. And I did not handle it right.”

A number of Republicans have criticized him for the lack of transparency and used the incident to slam the Biden administration for not keeping Congress informed.

Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December and went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for surgery on Dec. 22. On Jan. 1, he was taken back to Walter Reed by ambulance after experiencing significant pain, and was moved to the intensive care unit the next day.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged that public affairs and defense aides were told on Jan. 2 that Austin had been hospitalized but did not make it public and did not tell the military service leaders or the National Security Council until Jan. 4. Only then did Biden find out. It took four more days before the reason for his hospitalization was disclosed.

A newly released internal review — conducted by Austin’s subordinates — largely absolved anyone of wrongdoing for the secrecy surrounding his hospitalization. The review concluded there was “no indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate,” and it blamed communications failures on privacy restrictions and staff hesitancy to seek or communicate timely information about Austin’s health and condition.

Austin spent several days in intensive care and transferred decision-making authorities to Hicks during that time and when he had the initial surgery in December. He did not, however, tell her why and he did not inform the White House.

Department officials did a classified briefing with senators on Tuesday that got mixed reviews.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., criticized the decision to make the briefing classified, saying the public deserves to know details about the communications breakdown. She said the Defense Department must, at a minimum, “consider how to inform Congress about future gaps in command — as required by current law.”

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called the internal review a “starting point” and said the briefing was intended to ensure that communications problems don’t happen again.

In his news briefing Feb. 1, Austin said the cancer diagnosis “was a gut punch. And, frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private.” He acknowledged he handled the matter badly and said he apologized to Biden.

The internal review said procedures must be improved and information shared better when the defense secretary must transfer decision-making authorities to the deputy. The Defense Department’s inspector general is also conducting a review, which has not yet been completed.

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