Defense Sec. Austin grilled by House GOP committee members over undisclosed hospitalization, lack of notification of Biden White House

 March 1, 2024

Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin was grilled during a Thursday hearing by Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee over his previously undisclosed prolonged hospitalization in early January -- even the White House had been uninformed -- that was only publicly revealed by leaks to the media several days later.

Of particular note during that hearing was Austin's admission that normal notification procedures were not followed, though he appeared to blame his top aides and staffers for the fact that even President Joe Biden was unaware of his absence from the usual chain of command, Breitbart reported.

However, the secretary nonetheless insisted that, because Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks had been placed in charge temporarily -- albeit while on vacation and without knowing why -- the critical chain of command was never actually broken.

Aides and staffers decided to transfer power, not Austin

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), himself a combat veteran, used his time to question Sec. Austin about the secret transfer of power to Hicks when he was hospitalized on Jan. 1 for complications from a recent surgical procedure and found that the transfer decision had been made not by Austin but rather by his aides and without anybody else's knowledge or oversight.

Asked if he made the transfer of authority decision, Austin acknowledged, "I did not. The decision was whether or not they had reached a point, a threshold, where I could not communicate, or have access to secure communications."

When pressed on who made that consequential decision without notifying anybody else, the secretary admitted, "Well, as my assistants conferred, they agreed that we had reached that threshold, and they should put the process in place and they did, and I think it was the right decision."

Austin seemed to admit staffers were at fault for not notifying White House of hospitalization

Breitbart reported that at another point during the hearing, while taking questions from Rep. Lisa McClain (R-MI), Sec. Austin admitted that he didn't have a phone with him while hospitalized and couldn't be reached or communicated with, and seemed to suggest that his top aides and staffers were to blame for the fact that the White House and President Biden were not notified for several days that he was incapacitated and out of the command loop.

Speaking of his time as a hospitalized "patient," Austin said, "And so my expectation is that the organization informed the right agencies."

"So it wasn’t your fault, it was the staff’s fault?" McClain asked about the lack of proper notifications, to which the secretary replied, "Well, I didn’t have access to any kind of communications during that time."

An "unacceptable" "breakdown in communication"

That lack of communication about the undisclosed breakdown in the chain of command was keyed in on by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who noted that elements of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, which is based in her district, were deployed to Iraq and Syria and involved in a major military operation that could have resulted in retaliatory strikes during the time that Sec. Austin was secretly hospitalized without even President Biden being aware.

"First of all, I would say that when we’re attacked we have a right to defend ourselves and respond immediately if it’s a local attack," Austin explained. "If a strike is warranted, then recommendations need to be provided to the President. Those recommendations come through from me and after I’ve consulted with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and also the Combatant Commander. The Deputy Secretary would have done the same thing and she has all of the capabilities and situational awareness to do that."

"Except the President wasn’t aware. The President of the United States was not aware that you were not in the Chain of Command, so God forbid there was a retaliatory strike, that would have caused potential delays and it is unacceptable," the congresswoman fired back, and later reiterated how "unacceptable" it was for there to have been a "breakdown in communication" with the president at a critical time.

Austin insisted that Biden "is clearly at the top of the chain in terms of command and control, but what is important is that we provide him with credible options that he can pursue to address any situation and it would’ve happened in this case," but Stefanik countered, "Except he was unaware, so what’s important is the President was unaware of this breakdown in command and control and you were not there in terms of who he would hear from."

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