Fury erupts over delayed Pentagon revelation that Defense Sec. Austin was hospitalized all week

 January 7, 2024

President Joe Biden's White House has often proclaimed itself to be the "most transparent administration" in history, but that assertion was just devastatingly undermined this week by the exposed secrecy of the Defense Department.

It was belatedly revealed Friday evening by the Pentagon that Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin had been hospitalized since Monday -- a situation that had been kept secret from not just the public but also the White House, Congress, and even senior Defense officials, according to the Associated Press.

There is now justifiable outrage and legitimate demands from members of Congress and the media for answers as to why everyone was kept in the dark, reportedly including even President Biden and the White House National Security Council, about Austin's condition and secretive hospitalization.

Nobody knew for several days

Friday evening, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement, "On the evening of January 1, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for complications following a recent elective medical procedure. He is recovering well and is expecting to resume his full duties today. At all times, the Deputy Secretary of Defense was prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary, if required."

The AP reported that unnamed senior administration officials revealed that the White House National Security Council and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were only alerted to the situation on Thursday, while senior Pentagon officials and members of Congress were only given a heads-up notice just moments before the public statement was released on Friday.

It was further revealed that the person who would assume leadership of the Defense Department in Austin's absence, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, was on vacation all week in Puerto Rico. However, she supposedly had secure communications set up with her at all times that would have allowed her to perform her duties if necessary.

Given the rapidly evolving multiple conflicts around the globe in which the U.S. is involved -- the Ukraine-Russia war, the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacking commercial and military ships in the Red Sea, to name a few -- there are serious concerns and unanswered questions about the military's readiness and capability to respond to timely developments.

Media and GOP furious over lack of timely notification

Fox News reported that the Pentagon Press Association, in reaction to the delayed revelation of Sec. Austin's hospitalization, was furious about the secrecy and said in a letter to Austin's staff, "We are writing to express our significant concerns about the Defense Department’s failure to notify the public and the media about Secretary Lloyd Austin’s current hospitalization," and added, "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."

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, demanded an immediate "full accounting" of what happened and the "shocking defiance of the law" to not swiftly notify Congress of the situation. He said, "This episode further erodes trust in the Biden Administration, which has repeatedly failed to inform the public in a timely fashion about critical events such as the Chinese spy balloon and the withdrawal from Afghanistan."

Likewise, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said in a statement, "Secretary Austin must address promptly the troubling report that the Department of Defense didn’t immediately notify President Biden or the National Security Council that he was hospitalized and unable to perform his duties."

"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," he added. "If this report is true, there must be consequences for this shocking breakdown."

"Someone’s head has to roll"

On Saturday, Sec. Austin released a statement of his own that praised and thanked doctors and staff at Walter Reed and announced that he would "soon" return to the Pentagon once he had fully recovered. "I also understand the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better," he added. "But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure."

Politico reported Sunday that President Biden had spoken with Austin over the weekend and retained confidence in his ability to do the job, but not everybody is as satisfied with the situation as the president was said to be, as one unnamed senior Pentagon official told the outlet that "Someone’s head has to roll" over the lack of timely notification.

"Not telling the [White House], Congress, or the media he is sick, and then telling Pentagon staff he is working from home is next level. This is a problem," an unnamed former senior DOD official told Politico. "Someone made the decision not to disclose. That person will likely be gone shortly."

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