Lawmakers Fault Defense Secretary Austin For A Failure Of Leadership Over His Secret Hospital Stay

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appears before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appears before the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin faced pointed bipartisan criticism at a congressional hearing Thursday for his failure to promptly notify President Joe Biden and other U.S. leaders about his hospital stay last month. Republicans demanded to know why no one has been disciplined.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee condemned the lapse as an embarrassment and a failure of his leadership. They said the fact that Biden was kept in the dark about Austin not being in command for days could have meant confusion or delays in military action, even though decision-making authorities had been transferred to the deputy defense secretary.

Austin insisted 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.” He said changes have been made to the notification process.

Many Democrats also expressed concerns about Austin's lack of transparency about his hospitalization for complications from prostate cancer surgery. But some also used the hearing to criticize House Republicans, who hold a slim majority, for not passing a budget or addressing critical national security needs.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., denounced the “outrage and drama” from committee members as she said Austin has admitted making an error, apologized and taken action to prevent a repeat. She implored her colleagues to “focus in on the things that are actually important to national security” such as threats from Russia and China.

Nonetheless, there was general agreement that Austin and his staff bungled notifications about his hospital stay in early January.

“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, the committee chairman, adding that wars were raging in Ukraine and Gaza at the time. “The chain of command doesn’t work when the commander in chief doesn’t know who to call.”

Lawmakers pointed out that any employee — from truck drivers to a subordinate military service member — who failed to notify their superior about an absence would typically face punishment.

“This is about judgment and poor judgment,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Florida. “My teenage daughter knows to tell her supervisor if she’s not going to work. The American people, truck drivers, bartenders know they have to tell their boss or they get fired. But you’ve held yourself to a different standard and that’s unacceptable.”

Austin struggled at times when pressed on who was to blame. He said he took full responsibility, but also said he did not tell his staff to keep it a secret. At times he appeared to blame his staff.

“I was the patient and so my expectation is that the organization informed the right agencies,” Austin said, when asked why it took four days to inform the White House that he was hospitalized. The Cabinet member said his public affairs staff knew he was hospitalized, but said he did not know why they did not tell anyone or if they made a decision not to inform the public.

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 did not do that himself and whether that suggested there was a gap in control.

When asked later for more details, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said he doesn't have an exact timeline of events that day. But he said a communications specialist is always with Austin, and said the secretary's military aides made the decision to transfer authorities to the deputy when it became clear that Austin would not have access to those secure communications due to his move to the intensive care unit.

Austin told lawmakers 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 and had apologized to Biden.

“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,” Austin said.

Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December. He 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. He 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 White House National Security Council until Jan. 4. Only then did Biden find out. It took four more days before the reason for Austin's hospitalization was disclosed.

A newly released internal review — conducted by Austin’s subordinates — largely absolved anyone of wrongdoing for the secrecy. 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 tell her why.

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.”

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.