Senior Biden administration leaders, top Pentagon officials, and members of Congress were unaware for days that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been hospitalized since Monday, U.S. officials said Saturday, as questions swirled about his condition and the secrecy surrounding it.
Lack of communication raises concerns over chain of command
The Pentagon did not inform the White House National Security Council or top adviser Jake Sullivan of Austin’s hospitalization at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, until Thursday, according to two administration officials.
“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.”
“If this report is true, there must be consequences for this shocking breakdown,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
Secretary Austin takes responsibility for communication delays
In a statement issued Saturday evening, Austin took responsibility for the delays in notification.
“I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” said Austin, acknowledging the concerns about transparency.
“But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Secretary Austin’s hospitalization and recovery
Austin, 70, remained hospitalized due to complications following a minor elective medical procedure, his press secretary said, as it became increasingly clear how closely the Pentagon held information about his stay at Walter Reed.
In his statement, Austin said he is on the mend and is looking forward to returning to the Pentagon soon, but he provided no other details about his ailment.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were notified about Austin’s hospitalization, but he would not confirm when that notice happened.
Many Pentagon staff members learned about Austin’s hospital stay when the department released a statement just minutes after 5 p.m.
Senators express concerns over delayed notification
“The Department of Defense deliberately withheld the Secretary of Defense’s medical condition for days.
That is unacceptable,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Tom Cotton also criticized the delayed notice, emphasizing the importance of immediate communication in crucial situations.
Pentagon Press Association protests delayed notification
The Pentagon Press Association, which represents media members who cover the Defense Department, sent a letter of protest to Pentagon officials, stating, “The fact that he has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for four days and the Pentagon is only now alerting the public late on a Friday evening is an outrage.”
Austin’s hospitalization comes amid international concerns, including ongoing attacks by Iranian-backed militias in the Middle East and the U.S. role in the wars in Israel and Ukraine.
U.S. role in global maritime coalition and support for Ukraine and Israel
The U.S. is also leading an international maritime coalition to deter attacks on commercial vessels in the southern Red Sea.
In addition, the administration, particularly Austin, has been at the forefront of the effort to supply weapons and training to Ukraine, and he’s also been communicating frequently with the Israelis on their war against Hamas.