Defense secretary faces intense scrutiny over hospital stay that was not disclosed to key officials

Jan 7, 2024, 3:13 PM

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday, Dece...

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday, December 18. (Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press)

(Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press)

(CNN)Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin faced sharp criticism on Sunday as details emerged about the degree to which senior officials, including President Joe BidenSecretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, were left in the dark about Austin’s multiday hospital stay.

Austin was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day due to complications from an elective surgery, but Biden was not informed that his civilian leader of the military was hospitalized until January 4, when national security adviser Jake Sullivan told him, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Hicks, who began assuming some of Austin’s responsibilities on January 2, did not know that it was because Austin was hospitalized, two defense officials told CNN. Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time and was not informed of Austin’s hospitalization until the afternoon of January 4, the officials said.

Blinken, in response to a reporter’s question at a news conference in Qatar on Sunday, said he “wasn’t aware” of Austin’s medical issue at the time.

“I talked to Lloyd last weekend before this incident and I know that he’s put out a statement addressing it,” Blinken said.

Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence, had harsh words for Austin.

“I believe the American people have the right to know about his medical condition, about the reasons for it,” Pence told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” characterizing Austin’s actions as a “dereliction of duty.”

Pence said that he wishes Austin well but said the lack of transparency was “totally unacceptable.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed similar sentiments in a statement released Saturday.

“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,” the Mississippi Republican said.

Wicker said the lack of transparency regarding Austin’s hospitalization “erodes trust in the Biden Administration.”

He added, “Worryingly, we now have more questions than answers. Why was the notification process under 5 U.S.C. 3349 not followed and who made the determination not to follow it?”

5 U.S.C. 3349 is the US code for reporting vacancies in an office, which applies to the head of each executive agency.

Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma called the lack of disclosure over Austin’s hospitalization “shocking.”

“It’s pretty shocking on this because when you’re the secretary of defense, you need to make everyone aware that you’re actually going out of pocket,” Lankford said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Lankford went on to say the issue was not just that Austin was absent from his position, but that key branches of government weren’t aware.

“Apparently, the National Security Council didn’t know it, the White House didn’t know it, Congress didn’t know it. We’re at a time with a lot of turmoil internationally,” Lankford said.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, assistant Democratic leader in the House, told CNN’s Tapper that he disagreed with Pence that Austin’s actions were a “dereliction of duty,” calling Austin a “stand-up guy” and a “great defense secretary.”

“Now we have some laws in this country, HIPAA laws, that keep us out of people’s medical businesses, and I do believe this man has as much right to be protected by those laws, and be subjected to those laws, as everybody else. He does have a duty to keep the public informed,” the South Carolina Democrat said. “And I don’t know whether it was him, or someone inside the military establishment that decided to do it this way, but I am sure he will do a little better going forward as he said he would.”

Austin is a critical member of Biden’s cabinet and holds one of the most important roles in the national security establishment — particularly as the US military faces increased tensions in the Middle East.

During Austin’s hospitalization, the US carried out a strike in Baghdad against the commander of a pro-Iran militia. Austin gave authorization for the strike before he was hospitalized, said Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary.

The day he was hospitalized, Austin was among the top national security officials who participated in a call with the president to discuss, among other things, the escalating situation in the Red Sea, a source familiar with the call told CNN.

It was not clear whether the call — which was said to have taken place in the morning — was before or after Austin was hospitalized. But he sounded fine during the meeting, the source said at the time.

Austin has since reassumed his full duties. He spoke to Biden on Saturday evening, according to a White House official, who said the “president has complete confidence in Secretary Austin and is looking forward to him being back in the Pentagon.”

On Saturday evening, Austin thanked the “amazing” staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the care he has received and said he is “on the mend” and looking forward to returning to the Pentagon.

He acknowledged “media concerns about transparency” and said “I commit to doing better” in the statement, which totaled seven sentences. But he did not apologize for failing to notify the public or the press in a timely fashion. Senior administration and military officials who are hospitalized normally put out a statement within 24 hours

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s MJ Lee, Oren Liebermann, Haley Britzky, Natasha Bertrand and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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Defense secretary faces intense scrutiny over hospital stay that was not disclosed to key officials