Questions mount over Defense secretary’s undisclosed hospitalization

Questions mount over Defense secretary’s undisclosed hospitalization

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Questions on Sunday continued to mount over Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s undisclosed hospitalization, with several political figures raising concerns over the public’s and President Biden’s unawareness that the nation’s most senior defense official was unable to execute his official duties for days.

News of Austin’s hospitalization became public Friday, when the Pentagon announced he was recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland after experiencing “complications following a recent elective medical procedure.” The Pentagon said he was admitted four days prior on New Year’s Day.

A Pentagon spokesperson Sunday confirmed to The Hill that Austin remains hospitalized but said they cannot disclose information on his condition or what prompted the visit due to “privacy reasons.”

“This has been an evolving situation, in which we had to consider a number of factors, including medical and personal privacy issues,” the spokesperson said, adding that Austin was doing “well.”

The White House deferred questions about Biden’s unawareness to the National Security Council, who declined to comment.

Several reports swirled over the weekend that indicated Austin was admitted to the intensive care unit of the medical center, according to NBC News and The New York Times.

Austin resumed his full duties Friday from the hospital, the Pentagon said.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, whom reports indicate carried out the duties of Defense secretary in the first few days of Austin’s hospitalization, was also left in the dark about Austin’s location until Thursday, CNN reported, citing two defense officials.

Austin transferred “certain operational responsibilities that require constant secure communications capabilities” to Hicks on Jan. 2, a day after he was admitted to Walter Reed, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told CNN. Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico last week and as of Friday, opted to stay there after Austin resumed his duties.

During the week, Hicks made”some routine decisions” on behalf of Austin, a spokesperson for the Defense Department told The Hill.

Defense officials confirmed to CNN that Hicks did not find out about Austin’s hospitalization until Thursday afternoon, though Ryder told CNN it is “not uncommon” for the secretary to transfer certain responsibilities without providing a specific explanation.

“Secretary Austin did not have to affirmatively delegate his duties because by statute, the Deputy Secretary is automatically authorized to perform the duties of the Secretary if he is unable to perform them. Medical professionals have been consulted throughout,” the Defense Department spokesperson said. 

Soon after the Pentagon’s acknowledgement Friday, various media reports surfaced that the White House, including President Biden, was unaware of Austin’s hospitalization for nearly three days — a potentially major breach of protocol as Cabinet secretaries’ whereabouts are typically closely kept track of from the Situation Room.

It was not until Thursday that Biden was informed of Austin’s hospitalization at Walter Reed. That was the same day the Pentagon confirmed the U.S. had ordered a strike in Baghdad targeting a militia leader without disclosing yet that Austin was not acting as Defense secretary at the time.

Politico was the first to report the delayed notification. National security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior White House aides received word about Austin’s situation from the Defense Department on Thursday and shortly after the notification, Sullivan informed Biden.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment on the timeline of the notification, pointing to the Pentagon for further comment.

As questions swirl about why the information surrounding Austin was kept in the dark for days, several political figures are calling out the lack of transparency.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said the situation is “shocking” as the whereabouts of nation’s top Defense official have to be known by other officials.

“It’s pretty shocking on this because when you’re the secretary of Defense, you need to make everyone aware that you’re actually going to be out of pocket,” Lankford said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

Lankford noted the timing of the delay is also important, given the international “turmoil.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday called the lack of disclosure around the hospitalization a “dereliction of duty.”

“Well, first, I wish the secretary of Defense well, and I’m pleased he’s making a full recovery, but the handling of this by the secretary of Defense is totally unacceptable,” Pence said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And I believe the American people have a right to know about his medical condition, about the reasons for it.”

Like Lankford, the former vice president pointed to the ongoing conflicts in Europe and the Israel-Hamas war and called on the secretary and the Biden administration to come forward with the information.

Former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) similarly said there was some explaining to do.

“I think that there’s a, there’s a real difference between public transparency and, you know, alerting the commander in chief to the fact that the secretary of Defense is in the hospital,” Cheney said Sunday during an interview with CBS News’s “Face the Nation, adding later, “It’s inexplicable. We need to know more about exactly what happened there. But that’s not the way the Pentagon ought to be conducting business.”

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Sunday pushed back on the argument that the undisclosed information was a “dereliction of duty.”

“I don’t think it was a dereliction of duty. No, I don’t think that at all. I do wish that it had been disclosed, and maybe it was, maybe just not made public. So I don’t know all the particulars here,” Clyburn said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I do know Lloyd Austin. He is a stand-up guy. He’s a great Defense secretary. He has been a tremendous military man in this country, and I’m told he is now in charge of things as he was before the illness.”

Biden has yet to weigh in publicly on the reports. The New York Times, citing a U.S. official, reported Biden and Austin spoke by phone Saturday night and that another official said the president expressed confidence in his Defense secretary.

Austin acknowledged in a statement Saturday that he could have better informed the public about the hospitalization.

“I also understand the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” the statement read.

“But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure,” Austin added.

Updated 4:10 p.m.

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