The Department of Defense (DOD) failed to notify the White House about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization for four days, according to several reports.
Austin was admitted to Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., on Monday for a medical issue related to an elective procedure he underwent, reportedly ending up in the intensive care unit for several days, according to NBC News and Politico. Key White House National Security Council (NSC) officials were not informed of the hospitalization until Thursday, while DOD officials and legislators were not made aware until Friday.
The DOD did not release information about Austin’s hospitalization to the public until Friday evening, and the agency reportedly gave congressional lawmakers a heads-up only 15 minutes before going public, according to Politico. Jake Sullivan, who serves as President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, was not made aware of Austin’s status until Thursday.
One DOD official told Politico that Austin’s staffers told their office that he was working from home for the week.
“This should not have happened this way,” one anonymous U.S. official told Politico, which granted anonymity to allow the official to speak freely about a sensitive subject.
While Austin was out of commission, his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, executed his duties on an acting basis, according to NBC News. Hicks was not in Washington to oversee the agency, but instead on vacation in Puerto Rico.
Hicks “has maintained full communication with the DOD staff throughout,” an agency official told NBC News. “She has monitored DOD’s day-to-day operations and conducted some routine business.”
“At all times, the Deputy Secretary of Defense was prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary, if required,” Major General Pat Ryder, a DOD spokesperson, said in a Friday statement.
It is unconfirmed whether the lack of communication was deliberate or not, but at least one expert is highly skeptical that such significant information was miscommunicated or overlooked.
“It is so out of character for DOD and clearly was made after a deliberate discussion of how this information should be handled,” Arnold Punaro, a former Marine Corps major general and ex-staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Politico. The hospitalization was a “closely guarded secret” that was kept away from high-ranking DOD and congressional officials until just prior to the DOD’s public announcement, according to nine DOD officials and two congressional aides cited by Politico.
Austin was still at Walter Reed as of Friday night, according to NBC News. U.S. forces carried out a strike in Baghdad, Iraq, on Monday while Austin was out of commission.
The news of Austin’s hospitalization and the lack of communication about it across the relevant government entities occurred as Iran-backed militant groups, including the Houthis in Yemen, have considerably stepped up attacks against U.S. forces and commercial interests in the Middle East in the months since the Israel-Hamas war began.
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