It has been revealed that Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks and other top officials were kept in the dark about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization for several days.
According to a report, the news of Austin’s hospitalization was only communicated to them three days after he was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The Department of Defense (DoD) stated that Hicks assumed certain operational responsibilities on Tuesday, while she was already on vacation in Puerto Rico. Although she planned to return to Washington, D.C., on Friday, she chose to remain in Puerto Rico as Austin was expected to resume his duties from the hospital.
Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder defended the decision, stating that it is not uncommon for the defense secretary to delegate responsibilities without explanation. He also emphasized that Austin has no intentions of resigning. However, this lack of transparency regarding Austin’s hospitalization shocked the Pentagon press corps, lawmakers, and even White House officials.
NBC News reported that Austin spent four days in the intensive care unit, while Gen. C.Q. Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was informed about the situation on Tuesday. Acting Defense Undersecretary for Policy Sasha Baker attended a White House meeting in Austin’s place without knowledge of his hospitalization.
President Joe Biden, expressing full confidence in Austin, is eagerly awaiting his return to the Pentagon, according to a White House official. However, an ABC News source claimed that Biden was frustrated by the lack of transparency and announced that there will be a review of the incident.
The delayed notice regarding Austin’s medical condition drew criticism from the media and members of Congress, who demanded more information. The Pentagon Press Association’s board of directors sent a letter to DoD public affairs officials expressing outrage at the late notice and requesting a meeting to address this troubling situation promptly. They also argued that Austin has no claim to privacy in this situation.
From a White House official: “The President has full confidence in Secretary Austin. He’s looking forward to him being back at the Pentagon.”
Biden and Austin spoke this evening, the official said.
— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) January 7, 2024
Senator Roger Wicker, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a statement condemning the Department of Defense’s deliberate withholding of the secretary’s medical condition, deeming it unacceptable.
“I am glad to hear @SecDef is in improved condition and I wish him a speedy recovery. However, the fact remains that the Department of Defense deliberately withheld the Secretary of Defense’s medical condition for days. That is unacceptable.”
— SASC GOP (@SASCGOP) January 7, 2024
In response to the growing concerns and criticism, Austin released a statement expressing gratitude to the doctors and nursing staff at Walter Reed for their exceptional care. He acknowledged the need for transparency and took responsibility for not ensuring the public was appropriately informed. Austin assured that he would do better in the future and expressed his eagerness to return to the Pentagon soon.
The incident has raised questions about transparency within the Department of Defense and the importance of timely communication regarding the health of top officials.