Pentagon Under Pressure Over Defense Secretary Austin’s Absence

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(Bloomberg) -- US lawmakers demanded answers from the Pentagon after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin failed to notify the White House about his hospitalization for four days, saying they weren’t satisfied with the explanation for his absence.

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The Pentagon said Monday that Austin’s top staffers knew about the hospitalization on Jan. 2, but did not notify the White House, Congress or the deputy defense secretary for several days. The Defense Department has still not disclosed why Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, or whether he was unconscious at any time during his multi-day stay in intensive care, which began on New Year’s Day.

“Given the extremely serious military decisions that the United States is dealing with, including attacks on our troops by Iranian-backed proxies, the war in the Middle East, and the ongoing aggression by Russia in Ukraine, it is inexplicable that the Secretary’s condition remains shrouded in secrecy,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee and Subcommittee on Defense, said in a statement.

Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former Marine officer, said, “the fact that this occurred with the secretary of defense — and his own deputy, let alone the president, didn’t know — is astounding.”

The episode presents a problem for President Joe Biden in an election year, highlighting dysfunction at the commanding heights of the US military machine. It has also thrust his intensely private defense secretary into a media storm and raised questions about whether he should resign.

Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, released a memo on Monday night detailing a 30-day internal review of practices for transferring authority from the secretary to his deputy and the accompanying process for notifying the president and other parts of the government. It also put in place temporary practices around notification while the review is underway.

Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and frequent critic of the administration, called for him to step down, and Senator JD Vance, an Ohio Republican and Marine veteran, said he should be fired.

Others on Capitol Hill said they were withholding judgment.

Earlier: Biden in Dark on Defense Secretary’s Hospital Stay for Days

The White House acknowledged on Monday that Austin made mistakes, but said his position was secure.

“The president respects the fact that Secretary Austin took ownership for the lack of transparency. He also respects the amazing job he’s done as defense secretary,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “There is no plans for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job.”

Pentagon spokesman Major General Patrick Ryder also acknowledged shortcomings on Monday. Ryder, along with Magsamen, was among the small group of officials who knew of Austin’s admission to Walter Reed the day after it happened, but chose not to make it public or to notify the rest of the government.

“I recognize that I should have tried to learn more and to press for an earlier public acknowledgment. So I offer my apologies and my pledge to learn from this experience,” Ryder said.

Still, senior Democrats — who have otherwise praised Austin for his role in marshaling US military aid to Ukraine — pressed publicly for assurances that the Pentagon would improve.

“I remain concerned that vital chain of command and notification procedures were not followed while the secretary was under medical care,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “This was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the department.”

Late Monday, Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, issued a statement saying Austin was in “good condition,” recovering well and no longer in intensive care. But he said there’s no specific date yet for his release from the hospital.

The lack of notification was unusual for a government department known for its attachment to procedures and protocol. Previous health episodes involving defense secretaries were reported almost immediately.

“The non-notifications are so out of character for DOD which has a highly organized system for notifications on the most routine and the most serious matters,” said Arnold Punaro, a former Marine Corps major general and Defense Business Board member.

Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said it is “way too early” to talk about Austin’s resignation, adding that “there are still a lot of unanswered questions.”

“We need to know more,” Durbin said. “This is not over by a long shot.”

--With assistance from Tony Capaccio, Courtney McBride and Erik Wasson.

(Updates with Magsamen memo, in sixth paragraph.)

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