Inside the Pentagon's Failure to Notify the White House, Congress of Defense Secretary's Hospitalization

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talks during a meeting with Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson at the Pentagon on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

The Pentagon on Monday attempted an explanation following its bombshell announcement late last week that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been secretly hospitalized for days in the intensive care unit -- without the White House or Congress being notified.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon's top spokesman, in a public briefing that went for more than an hour, blamed a series of issues -- including Austin's chief of staff coming down with the flu and his own failure to follow up -- for the public and key government officials being unaware the defense secretary was sidelined at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

Despite the Pentagon's explanation, it remained unclear exactly how or why Austin, a cabinet secretary and the civilian head of the military -- who was still hospitalized but back in control of the Pentagon on Monday, effectively hid a health emergency for nearly four days from not only President Joe Biden but also Congress and the American people.

    Read Next: Marine Units Rotating to Indo-Pacific Don't Have Their Own Counter-Drone Capabilities, Commanders Say

    For any cabinet official, the White House chief of staff would typically be informed about their whereabouts and whether they may be out of reach for a period, said Peter Feaver, a professor and expert on civil-military relations at Duke University who was a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush.

    Because the defense secretary is in the chain of command, there is usually even more care to ensure lines of communication aren't broken, he said.

    Members of Congress demanded answers following the Pentagon announcement late Friday that Austin was hospitalized, and some Republicans called on him to resign, including former President Donald Trump, who is the front-runner for the party in the upcoming presidential election.

    At the Monday briefing, Ryder said Austin was out of the intensive care unit and that "his prognosis is good." The defense secretary had received operational updates, including his presidential daily brief on Monday, he added.

    Austin's health issue and the medical procedures he underwent beginning last month were not disclosed by the Pentagon.

    The entire saga began Dec. 22 when Austin underwent "an elective medical procedure" at Walter Reed, Ryder told reporters. He said that he didn't have any more details on what the procedure was.

    However, Ryder said that, during the initial procedure and a day-long hospital stay, Austin transferred "certain operational authorities" to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. He described that transfer as fairly common and something that can also occur when Austin plans to be in a location with little or no communication. Other authorities transfer automatically, he added.

    As a result, Ryder said that it is also common for Hicks to receive such a transfer without knowing why and not think to ask more questions.

    The situation escalated when, on the evening of Jan. 1, Austin began experiencing severe pain and was transported by ambulance back to Walter Reed, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit.

    "He was conscious, but in quite a bit of pain," Ryder said.

    Ryder said that Austin again transferred some of his authorities the next day to Hicks, who was vacationing in Puerto Rico, according to an NBC report. At this point, the Pentagon's understanding of who was aware of Austin's condition becomes murky, but it's clear that at least some officials, in various positions of authority, started to learn of the hospitalization.

    Austin's chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, knew of his situation. However, she was out with the flu and, according to Ryder, this "caused a delay in these notifications."

    While it appears that the authority to pass the news along was her responsibility, Magsamen wasn't the only one aware of Austin's condition. Ryder said that Austin's junior military aide met with him that day, suggesting his senior military adviser, Lt. General Ronald Clark, was also somewhat in the loop.

    The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown, was notified. Ryder also admitted to reporters that he and Chris Meagher, the assistant to the secretary for public affairs, knew their boss was in the hospital at this point, as well.

    Ryder didn't answer a question about whether Magsamen's failure to pass on the message that Austin was in the ICU was because of her illness or because she was ordered to not do so.

    In a statement released Saturday, Austin said that he was taking full responsibility for the "transparency issues."

    Others, such as the Joints Chiefs chairman, may have felt that it wasn't their place to spread the news.

    "I don't know that it's necessarily Gen. Brown's responsibility to notify the service departments -- he's an adviser to the secretary and the president," Ryder said.

    Two days later, on Jan. 4, Magsamen finally notified Hicks and the White House -- specifically National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan -- that Austin was in the hospital.

    Feaver, the Duke professor, said it's not unusual for the deputy defense secretary to receive little explanation for routine delegations of authority. But he said that a hospitalization should warrant more explanation.

    Even if Austin wanted privacy, Feaver said, his staff should have pushed back.

    "It was a baffling decision, based on what is publicly known right now, Monday afternoon, and raises questions about bad judgment or dubious staff work," Feaver said. "It's a chink in his armor in terms of presenting as a sure hand on the tiller."

    It appears that the notification on Thursday finally triggered larger-scale action on the part of Pentagon officials. After learning that Austin was hospitalized, Hicks, along with Magsamen, "immediately engaged on the drafting of a public statement and congressional outreach," Ryder said.

    It would be another day, Friday, before either Congress or the public would learn that Austin was in the hospital, finding out within hours of each other. The military heads of all the military services were also notified Friday, according to Ryder.

    For his own part, Ryder said that, while he was aware of the hospitalization earlier than most, "I didn't feel at liberty at that stage to disclose that information" and he didn't ask any follow-up questions for his press briefing Thursday.

    "In retrospect, I should have asked those hard questions and I should have pushed for an earlier public acknowledgment," Ryder conceded, before adding that he "will do better next time."

    What also loomed large in the hourlong briefing is how many questions Ryder didn't or couldn't answer.

    Left unanswered were questions about whether the White House knew about the original medical procedure in December; whether Austin or his wife told anyone to conceal the hospitalization; who at the White House normally needs to be notified of a secretary's inability to perform his duties; what Austin's staff was telling the White House about his schedule while he was in the ICU; how often Austin was unconscious; and whether the secretary could walk on Monday.

    Ryder also couldn't immediately say whether there was a Defense Department instruction governing reporting requirements for such a scenario.

    Outrage on Capitol Hill

    The Pentagon's failure to quickly notify the White House and Congress of Austin's hospitalization ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are demanding answers about why they and top officials weren't informed of the situation sooner. With Ryder still unable to answer key questions Monday, it was unclear whether the department's cleanup effort would be enough to quell Congress.

    "This concerning lack of transparency exemplifies a shocking lack of judgment and a significant national security threat," Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the fourth highest-ranking House Republican and a House Armed Services Committee member, said in a statement Monday. "There must be full accountability beginning with the immediate resignation of Secretary Austin and those that lied for him and a congressional investigation into this dangerous dereliction of duty."

    GOP Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Rick Crawford of Arkansas, as well as Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have also said Austin should resign or be fired.

    Most lawmakers have not gone that far yet, but Republicans and Democrats alike expressed concerns about the lack of transparency and demanded an explanation.

    "I remain concerned that vital chain-of-command and notification procedures were not followed while the secretary was under medical care," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a statement Monday. "He is taking responsibility for the situation, but this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the department.

    "This lack of disclosure must never happen again," Reed said. "I am tracking the situation closely, and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information."

    Reed and Austin spoke on the phone Sunday, Ryder told reporters Monday, though the spokesman could not answer who initiated the call.

    Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement Saturday suggested that a law requiring congressional notification in the event of an executive branch vacancy should have applied. Ryder on Monday said that the department was "considering the impact of any statutory reporting requirements and we'll provide updates as appropriate."

    Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a former Green Beret who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, posed a series of questions on social media over the weekend, including what authorities were delegated, whether Hicks had authority in the nuclear chain of command, and whether combatant commanders and service secretaries knew of any change in the chain of command.

    "I don't know whether it's more concerning that the chain of command literally didn't exist for multiple days or the White House apparently communicates so little with the Pentagon that nobody noticed the defense secretary missing at a time of two major wars!" Waltz posted on the social media site X.

    The Pentagon now says that it has started a review -- run by Austin's office -- of how it could improve notification procedures, to include the White House and Congress.

    "We need a new normal," Ryder said. "We're gonna go back and look at how this works to make sure that we're taking into account the situation, learning from it and doing better next time."

    Despite the controversy, Austin's job appears safe. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Monday that "there is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job."

    Related: The Pentagon Adds New Details about Austin's Secretive Hospital Stay and the Delay in Telling Biden

    Story Continues