White House, Pentagon will review Defense Secretary Austin’s lack of disclosure on his hospital stay
WASHINGTON: Both the White House and Pentagon said Monday they would look into why President Joe Biden and other top officials weren’t informed for days that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been hospitalized. A Pentagon spokesman pointed to one reason: A key staffer was out sick with the flu.
Even as the Biden administration pledged to look into what rules or procedures weren’t followed, it maintained its silence about why Austin has been hospitalized for a week. Late Monday, the Pentagon issued an update saying Austin “is recovering well.”
Some Republicans have demanded Austin’s resignation, but the Pentagon said he has no plans to step down.
Austin, 70, went to the hospital on Dec. 22 for what the Pentagon press secretary called an “elective procedure” but one serious enough that Austin temporarily transferred some of his authorities to his deputy, without telling her or other US leaders why. He went home the following day.
He also transferred some of his authorities after experiencing severe pain and being taken back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center by ambulance and put into intensive care on Jan. 1. The White House was not informed until Jan. 4.
Austin, who resumed his duties on Jan. 5, is no longer in intensive care. Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said his prognosis is “good” but it is not known when he will be released from the hospital.
The Pentagon said Austin has continued to receive briefings and make calls to senior leaders. On Monday, he spoke to national security adviser Jake Sullivan and got briefings from Gen. Erik Kurilla, his top general in the Middle East; his deputy, Kathleen Hicks;nd the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. CQ Brown Jr.
The failure to properly inform government and defense leaders will be the subject of what John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, called a “hotwash” to see if procedures need to be changed.
Kirby, speaking to reporters on Air Force One as Biden traveled to South Carolina, said there is an “expectation” among members of Biden’s Cabinet that if one of them is hospitalized, “that will be notified up the chain of command.”
Ryder acknowledged that he and other public affairs and defense aides were told 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.
“I want to offer my apologies and my pledge to learn from this experience, and I will do everything I can to meet the standard that you expect from us,” he said.
Ryder said staff in Austin’s front office will review notification procedures, including whether regulations, rules or laws were broken, and will take steps to improve the notification process. Those staff members, however, are among those who did not disclose the secretary’s hospitalization.
In a statement issued Saturday evening, Austin took responsibility for the delays in notification.
“I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” he said, acknowledging the concerns about transparency. “But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Ryder provided some more detail on who knew about the hospitalization and when they were told.
He said when Austin was taken back to the hospital on Jan. 1 he “was conscious but in quite a bit of pain.” He spent that evening undergoing tests and evaluation. The next day, “due to the secretary’s condition and on the basis of medical advice,” some authorities were transferred to Hicks through a standard email notification that often does not provide the reason for transfer, Ryder said.
Hicks, who was in Puerto Rico, was not told the reason for the transfer of authorities until Jan. 4.
Ryder said Austin’s chief of staff, senior military adviser and the Joint Chiefs chairman were notified of the defense secretary’s hospitalization on Jan. 2.
Ryder said the chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, did not inform the White House because she had the flu. He said Magsamen told Hicks on Jan. 4 and they began drafting a public statement and developing plans to notify government and congressional officials that day.
But the congressional notifications did not begin until the evening of Jan. 5, just minutes before the Pentagon issued its first public statement on Austin’s status.
Asked who approved the US military strike in Baghdad that killed a militia leader on Jan. 4, Ryder said it was pre-approved by Austin and the White House before Austin was hospitalized.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the only member of Congress Austin contacted about his hospitalization, called it a “serious incident” and said there needs to be accountability from the Pentagon.
New York Rep. Elize Stefanik and Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, both Republicans, have called for Austin to resign. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell did not answer when asked if Austin should resign.
“This lack of disclosure must never happen again,” Reed said in a statement. “I am tracking the situation closely and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information.”
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said letters requesting additional information from Austin are being sent.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Durbin said. “It’s not over by a longshot.”
Still, White House officials on Monday emphasized that Austin retains Biden’s confidence. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden appreciated Austin’s statement on Saturday, in which he took responsibility for the lack of transparency.
“There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continue the leadership that he’s been demonstrating,” Kirby said.