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House lawmakers grill Austin over secretive hospitalization

Armed Services chairman says he hopes to use the next defense policy bill to codify notification policies

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III testifies during the House Armed Services Committee hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III testifies during the House Armed Services Committee hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Members of the House Armed Services Committee interrogated Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III Thursday on the delay in notifying Congress and the president about his secretive hospitalization, in his first appearance before lawmakers since the episode initially roiled Capitol Hill in early January.

Lawmakers sought to pin down details on the timeline associated with the early days of Austin’s stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and associated transfer of authorities to his deputy, as they pushed to understand why officials across government were left in the dark on Austin’s condition.

Austin acknowledged “a breakdown in notifications” occurred following his Jan. 1 hospital admittance but continually stressed that there was never a gap in the chain of command — despite his quiet absence from it between Jan. 2 and Jan. 5.

“Again, I take full responsibility for this,” Austin said. “We didn’t get this right; we put the procedures in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Following a diagnosis of prostate cancer in early December, Austin underwent a prostatectomy on Dec. 22 without informing President Joe Biden, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, members of Congress or the public. He was readmitted to the hospital on Jan. 1 for complications stemming from the earlier procedure.

During his January hospital stay, Austin spent time in the intensive care unit, and some of his duties were transferred to Hicks on Jan. 2. Hicks, who was vacationing in Puerto Rico at the time, only learned on Jan. 4 that Austin had been hospitalized.

The White House was also unaware of Austin’s status until days into his hospitalization. Biden only learned of Austin’s cancer diagnosis on Jan. 9, the same day the Pentagon publicly disclosed Austin’s diagnosis.

Austin was released from the hospital on Jan. 15. He was readmitted for two days earlier this month due to a bladder issue.

The hearing came days after an internal Pentagon probe found no “indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate” related to the matter, saying privacy considerations “limited” Austin’s staff in both receiving and sharing information on his health and seemingly absolving the department from any wrongdoing in the situation.

The findings, and a related DOD briefing on the document earlier this week, frustrated some national security-minded senators of both parties. Thursday’s hearing was the first time Austin has appeared publicly before lawmakers since his hospitalization.

“We appreciate your desire to protect your subordinates, but it’s important in a democracy that public officials are held accountable when mistakes are made,” Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., said in his opening remarks. “This administration has gone to great lengths to avoid accountability whenever possible. But this is a matter of national security, and someone needs to be held accountable.”

Over the course of the two-hour hearing, Austin reiterated that he “did not handle this right.” But pressed repeatedly about who should have ensured the White House and others across the Biden administration were promptly notified about his condition, he seemed to point the finger back at his staff.

“In my case, I would expect that my organization would do the right thing to notify senior leaders if I am a patient in the hospital,” he said.

But some lawmakers appeared dissatisfied with the answer, likening Austin’s hospitalization to an employee who failed to inform their boss about a work absence or a servicemember who did not tell their superior about an incapacitation.

“If the commandant of the Marine Corps did this without reporting upward, there would be consequences,” said Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss. “If a private solider or a sailor or marine would have done this, or an airman, there would have been consequences. They may not have been discharged from service but there would have been consequences.”

Pivoting to passage

Many Democrats sought to walk the line between expressing concerns about the department’s handling of Austin’s hospitalization while urging their colleagues to refrain from allowing the episode to become what the committee’s top Democrat described as “a partisan attack.”

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the panel’s ranking member, warned the panel not to “incorrectly imply” that the U.S. over the course of early January was not “doing everything that we needed to do to meet the national security needs of this country.”

“The commander in chief should have all the broad range of information about what’s going on with the Pentagon, even though again in this instance, there was no question who was in charge; the transfer was adopted in accordance with the law and done appropriately,” he added.

Meanwhile, a number of Democrats sought to use the hearing as a platform to call for the passage of fiscal 2024 Defense appropriations as well as a Senate-approved, $95.3 billion national security supplemental to aid Ukraine and others abroad.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., slammed House Republicans for what he called their “dereliction of duty” when it comes to the delay in moving out on both of those bills.

“Mr. Secretary, it is not you that is the problem; it’s not what happened in your health emergency that’s the problem,” he said. “You’ve laid out clearly that that has been resolved, that standard operating procedures were followed.”

NDAA considerations

After the hearing, Rogers told reporters that he hopes to use the forthcoming fiscal 2025 defense policy bill to codify notification policies the Defense Department is putting in place in the wake of Austin’s hospitalization.

“One in particular I’m pretty hung up on is any time there is a transfer of authority going forward by the secretary of Defense to the deputy secretary or any other transfer of authority, I want it to have to be explained why,” he said. “I’m very bothered by the fact that Kathleen Hicks was not told why.”

DOD officials are currently working to put in place a slate of recommendations made by the internal review, including changes to bolster information sharing within the department; clearly delineate staff roles when the deputy is performing the duties of Defense secretary; update internal reporting requirements tied to the transfer of authorities; and more.

Other possible gaps in need of addressing could be identified by an ongoing Pentagon inspector general investigation into the department’s notification procedures and the process for transferring leadership authorities.

After hearing from Austin Thursday, Rogers said he no longer has confidence in Austin. But asked whether the Defense secretary should resign, Rogers responded: “Not my call.”

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