White House, Pentagon officials didn’t know for days that defense secretary went AWOL, was hospitalized

Other high-ranking US officials were not informed about his absence, including President Biden.

Katie Daviscourt Seattle WA
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was hospitalized for multiple days and never informed President Biden.

Austin, 70, the nation's most senior military official, was admitted to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 1 after suffering "complications following a recent elective medical procedure," according to the Pentagon, the Associated Press reports.

He did not inform other high-ranking US officials about his absence, including President Biden, and went AWOL for multiple days despite heightened international tensions and an increase in demands of the Dept. of Defense. Austin's duties require him to be available at a moment's call.

The lack of disclosure, which goes against established practice, raises questions about the severity of the military leader's illness, why he did not inform other senior officials, and whether or not the Pentagon had a plan in place for his absence.

Austin was hospitalized on New Year's Day and the Biden administration was not informed until Thursday. Republicans in Congress have expressed significant outrage, claiming that the DoD "deliberately" withheld Austin's medical condition in a "shocking defiance of the law."

"The Department of Defense deliberately withheld the secretary of defense's medical condition for days. That is unacceptable," said Sen. Roger Wicker (R), the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We are learning more every hour about the department's shocking defiance of the law."


"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?" said Wicker in a statement.

"What role did the Secretary of Defense's staff play? When exactly was the President notified? What justification did the Department have for withholding information from the National Security Council? To what extent was the Secretary incapacitated by his surgery?" added Wicker.

"The very fact that we have none of this information is an indictment of an administration which consistently holds Congressional authority on national defense matters in contempt," Wicker said.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (AR) demanded that Austin address the fiasco that occured following his absence, stating that he is the "key link in the chain of command between the president and the uniformed military, including the nuclear chain of command, when the weightiest of decisions must be made in minutes."

The Department of Defense said on Saturday that they did not make Austin's condition public due to medical privacy, according to the Associated Press.

The Pentagon also stated that Kathleen Hicks, the Deputy Defense Secretary, is available to stand in for Austin "at all times." However, reports indicate that Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico during Austin's hospitalization, according to CNN.

Austin will reportedly get to keep his job and said in a statement on Saturday that he takes "full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure. I also understand the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed."

"I commit to doing better," he added. "I am very glad to be on the mend and look forward to returning to the Pentagon soon."

The delay in announcing the Defense Secretary's hospitalization was deemed an "outrage" by the Pentagon Press Association, which represents media personnel covering the US Defense Department.

"At a time when there are growing threats to US military service members in the Middle East and the US 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 association said in a letter sent to Pentagon officials.

On Saturday, a Defense Department spokesman said that while Austin remained hospitalized, he was "recovering well" and had returned to his full responsibilities.

President Biden reportedly spoke with Austin via phone call on Saturday evening, according to CNN, which was described by a White House official as a "warm conversation." The official added that the "president has complete confidence in Secretary Austin and is looking forward to him being back in the Pentagon."
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