Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Hiding His Hospitalization from Biden, Others, Rocks Washington

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement with Israel Minister of Def
AP photo/ Maya Alleruzzo

Washington remained in collective shock on Sunday, as more information trickled out about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin being admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit for days and failing to disclose it to the president, the national security adviser, members of Congress, and the public.

The lack of disclosure raised serious questions not just for Austin and his judgment, but also for President Joe Biden and how he could have been unaware that his defense secretary was partially incapacitated for several days — especially as military confrontation between U.S. troops and Iran-backed proxy groups is heating up in the Middle East, threatening a bigger crisis.

The U.S. had just last Wednesday warned Houthis to stop targeting U.S. military and commercial ships in the Red Sea, and the next day, the U.S. military conducted a drone strike that killed an Iran-backed militia leader in Iraq — raising questions now as to who ordered that strike.

Adding to the fiasco has been the Pentagon refusing to say why Austin was admitted to the hospital, citing a desire for “privacy.”

Austin on Saturday himself issued a statement saying he understood the media concerns about transparency and conceded he could have done a “better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.”

“I commit to doing better,” he said, adding, “But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”

However, the statement did not explain why he had not told Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. And a continuous drip of revelations has come out over the weekend, each seemingly worse than the one before.

On Saturday, CNN reported that Austin had not even told his own deputy — Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks — that he was hospitalized until Thursday, January 4, despite transferring some of his duties to her on January 2.

That information came to light after NBC News reported that Hicks was on vacation at the time in Puerto Rico, which had raised questions over what duties he had transferred to her, what she knew, and why she did not return to Washington immediately. CNN reported that Hicks opted to stay in Puerto Rico even after being informed of his hospitalization and after Austin reassumed full responsibilities on Friday.

Some DOD officials were reportedly told by Austin’s aides that he was working from home.

The lack of transparency has prompted outrage from Republicans and Democrats.

“Several questions remain unanswered including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the Secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the Secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the President and Congress,” Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) said in a joint statement.

“Transparency is vitally important. Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible,” they added.

Several senators charged with oversight of the Pentagon called Austin’s dereliction “shocking.”

“We are learning more every hour about the Department’s shocking defiance of the law,” the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said in a rare Saturday statement, called for a briefing from the Pentagon “immediately.”

Senators also raised questions over who was in charge of giving U.S. military orders while Austin was in the hospital — an authority referred to as National Command Authority, which is given to the president and the defense secretary.

“When one of the country’s two National Command Authorities is unable to perform their duties, military families, Members of Congress, and the American public deserve to know the full extent of the circumstances,” Wicker added. “Members must be briefed on a full accounting of the facts immediately.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that Austin is the “key link” in the nuclear chain of command.

“The Secretary of Defense is the key link in the chain of command between the president and the uniformed military, including the nuclear chain of command, when the weightiest of decisions must be made in minutes. … There must be consequences for this shocking breakdown,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Army veteran Rep. Cory Mills (R-FL) demanded the House launch an investigation, calling it a “huge national security concern.” He posted on X:

Defense Secretary Austin was incapacitated from New Year’s Day until yesterday when he claims to have resumed full duties. He chose to NOT notify Biden, NSA Sullivan, and intentionally keep this secret. Even Deputy SecDef, Hicks, was unaware of having assumed roles. This is a huge national security concern given increase military threats, attacks on troops abroad, and further evidence to support my impeachment articles filed for his continual dereliction of duty. I ask @HASCRepublicans and @SpeakerJohnson to support further inquiry and investigate reasoning for such failures by the SecDef.

Other prominent Republican voices weighed in on the debacle, including Donald Trump Jr.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to former President Donald Trump, noted that Biden was returning from vacation at the same time that Austin was in the hospital on January 2 — making it unclear who exactly would be in position to order military action.

The public first learned of Austin’s hospitalization after Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder sent out a statement to the press around 6 p.m. ET on Friday, January 5, which said Austin had been admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for “complications following a recent elective medical procedure” on the evening of January 1. The Pentagon said he was “expecting to resume his full duties” that day.

Politico then reported that Austin did not inform National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan he was in the hospital until Thursday, January 4, and then reported shortly after that it was Sullivan who told Biden that Austin was in the hospital.

Hicks made “some routine decisions” on behalf of Austin, a spokesperson told the Hill. Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told CNN it is “not uncommon” for the secretary to transfer certain responsibilities without providing a specific explanation.

While members of Congress are calling for consequences, NBC News reported that Biden had a “warm conversation” with Austin on Saturday, and that he looked forward to Austin returning to the Pentagon.

Ryder also told CNN that Austin had no plans of resigning.

On Sunday, Ryder put out another update informing the public that Austin was still hospitalized, but “is recovering well and in good spirits.”

“Since resuming his duties on Friday evening, the Secretary has received operational updates and has provided necessary guidance to his team. He has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor DoD’s day-to-day operations worldwide,” Ryder said.

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