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Pentagon’s handling of Austin hospitalization roils Congress

Details withheld from media, Congress, Defense Department leadership and President Biden

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland on Jan. 1.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland on Jan. 1. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers are demanding answers from the Pentagon after Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III did not swiftly publicly disclose that he was hospitalized due to complications from a recent medical procedure.

News of Austin’s hospitalization wasn’t widely known until days into his stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., with details withheld from the media, Congress, Defense Department leadership and President Joe Biden himself.

And as of Monday — one week after Austin’s Jan. 1 admission — a series of questions remain about who in the Biden administration and Pentagon knew what, when, regarding the top DOD civilian’s condition.

The episode has elicited strong criticism from the Hill and journalists alike, who decried the lack of transparency as war rages in the Middle East and Ukraine and Houthi militants continue attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea region.

“I don’t know whether it’s more concerning, that the chain of command literally didn’t exist for multiple days or the White House apparently communicates so little with the Pentagon that nobody noticed the Defense Secretary missing at a time of two major wars!” House Armed Services Committee member Michael Waltz, R-Fla., wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

House Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., and ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., in a joint statement Sunday said they were “concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary’s condition was handled” and pushed for further details on Austin’s initial ailment and treatment, his current health status, the delegation of his responsibilities post-hospitalization and more.

Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., called for an immediate congressional briefing “on a full accounting of the facts.”

“I am glad to hear Secretary Austin is in improved condition and I wish him a speedy recovery. However, the fact remains that the Department of Defense deliberately withheld the Secretary of Defense’s medical condition for days,” Wicker said in a Saturday statement. “That is unacceptable.”

Amid the outcry, Austin acknowledged he “could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.”

“This is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure,” he added in a statement issued Jan. 6.

An unclear timeline

Though Austin was admitted to Walter Reed on the night of Jan. 1, it wasn’t until four days later that DOD released a statement disclosing his hospitalization.

That statement, from DOD spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, said Austin was dealing with “complications following a recent elective medical procedure.” But the department didn’t say more about his condition or what those complications were.

According to the Pentagon, Austin resumed his duties as Defense secretary on the evening of Jan. 5, though he remains in the hospital as of Sunday. It’s unclear when Austin will be discharged.

In the meantime, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks began assuming some of Austin’s duties as DOD leader Jan. 2, Ryder said. But a senior defense official said Hicks, who was vacationing in Puerto Rico last week, was not informed until Jan. 4 of Austin’s hospitalization.

The official said upon hearing the news, Hicks began to make contingency plans for a return to D.C. on Jan. 5, but was informed that Austin was poised to take back operational responsibilities that day after all.

Ryder said the transfer of certain operational responsibilities from DOD’s No. 1 to second-in-command “occurs from time to time and is not tied chiefly to health-related matters.”

In a separate statement Sunday, Ryder said Austin has been in contact with both Hicks and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. Austin also spoke with Biden on Saturday, Ryder said. The president did not learn of Austin’s hospitalization until three days after the Defense secretary’s admission, according to news reports.

As of Sunday afternoon, Austin “is recovering well and in good spirits,” Ryder said.

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