Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remained in the hospital Sunday as more details emerged about key decision-makers, even President Joe Biden, being kept in the dark for days that the Pentagon chief had been in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The Pentagon’s failure to disclose Austin’s hospitalization reflects a stunning lack of transparency about his illness, how serious it was and when he may be released. Such secrecy, at a time when the United States is juggling myriad national security crises, runs counter to normal practice with the president and other senior U.S. officials and Cabinet members.
A senior defense official said Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was not notified until Thursday that Austin had been hospitalized since Jan. 1. Once notified, Hicks began preparing statements to send to Congress and made plans to return to Washington, the official said. Hicks was in Puerto Rico on leave but had communications equipment with her to remain in contact and had already been tasked with some secretary-level duties on Tuesday.
The Pentagon did not say if Hicks was given an explanation on Tuesday for why she was assuming some of Austin’s duties, but temporary transfers of authority are not unusual and the official said it is not uncommon for authorities to be transferred without a detailed explanation. Hicks decided not to return after she was informed that Austin would resume full control on Friday. The official was not authorized to provide details of the transfer of authority and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Biden also was not told of Austin’s hospitalization until he was informed on Thursday by his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. That’s according to three people with knowledge of the hospitalization who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
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.”
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.
Sen. Roger Wicker, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the episode erodes trust in the Biden administration and called on the department to provide lawmakers with a “full accounting of the facts immediately.”
“I am glad to hear Secretary Austin 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,” Wicker said in a statement.
But it’s not just Republicans expressing alarm. In a joint statement, Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Adam Smith, D-Wash., said they were “concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary’s condition was handled.”
Among the questions they had were what the medical procedure was and what the resulting complications were, how and when the delegation of his responsibilities was made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the president and lawmakers. Rogers is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and Smith is the ranking Democrat.
“Transparency is vitally important. Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible,” said the two lawmakers.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced support for Austin at a news conference in Qatar on Sunday.
“He is an extraordinary leader in this country, in uniform and now out of uniform. And it’s been a highlight of my service to be able to serve alongside him,” Blinken said. “And I’m very much looking forward to see him fully recovered and working side by side in the year ahead.”
The Pentagon Press Association, which represents journalists who cover the Defense Department, sent a letter of protest on Friday evening, calling the delay in alerting the public “an outrage.”
“At a time when there are growing threats to U.S. military service members in the Middle East and the U.S. is playing key national security roles in the wars in Israel and Ukraine, it is particularly critical for the American public to be informed about the health status and decision-making ability of its top defense leader,” the PPA said in its letter.
Other senior U.S. leaders have been much more transparent about hospital stays. When Attorney General Merrick Garland went in for a routine medical procedure in 2022, his office informed the public a week in advance and outlined how long he was expected to be out and when he would return to work.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Michael Balsamo and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.