U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin needs to explain why the White House and senior officials weren’t immediately notified that he’d been hospitalized earlier this week until days later, amid a complex time as the Biden administration deals with a slew of national security matters abroad.
Austin was admitted to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday for complications following a recent elective medical procedure,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Friday, at which time the press was told.
Ryder said that the hospitalization was kept from the media due to “medical and personal privacy issues.” However, staffers with the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, congressional leaders, and the White House weren’t immediately told, either, officials confirmed to Fox News.
“Secretary Austin must address promptly the troubling report that the Department of Defense didn’t immediately notify President Biden or the National Security Council that he was hospitalized and unable to perform his duties,” Cotton said in a statement released Saturday. “The Secretary of Defense 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.
“If this report is true, there must be consequences for this shocking breakdown.”
After Austin was admitted to the hospital, his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, who was on a previously scheduled vacation and not physically in the Pentagon, partially assumed some of his duties from Monday through Friday, an official told Fox News.
The National Security Council as well as President Biden weren’t notified of Austin’s hospitalization until Thursday and Congress wasn’t told until Friday, minutes before a public statement was released to the press, officials said. Even senior Pentagon officials weren’t told, the official said.
Austin was kept in intensive care after an elective surgery that he didn’t want publicized. The secrecy stands in contrast to Marine Corps Commandant Eric Smith, who suffered a heart attack on Oct. 29, 2023. A press statement was released within hours with regular updates sent out.
In a statement released Saturday, Austin thanked the doctors at Walter Reed as well as colleagues and friends while acknowledging transparency concerns.
“I am very glad to be on the mend and look forward to returning to the Pentagon soon,” he said. “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. But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
The delayed news enraged the press. The Pentagon Press Association (PPA), an organization that serves as the voice of journalists covering the Pentagon, sent a letter from its board of directors to Secretary Austin’s personnel on Friday evening.
“We are writing to express our significant concerns about the Defense Department’s failure to notify the public and the media about Secretary Lloyd Austin’s current hospitalization,” the letter said. “The fact that he has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for four days and the Pentagon is only now alerting the public late on a Friday evening is an outrage.”
News of Austin’s hospitalization came at a complicated time for the Biden administration. U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have increasingly come under attack by drones and rockets by Iran-backed groups. Ground forces there have fended off more than 100 attacks thus far.
In addition, the U.S. is involved in a proxy war with Russia as it continues to arm Ukraine while also assisting Israel with funding and weapons in its war with Hamas.
Several American warships are also in the Red Sea and have shot down dozens of drones and ballistic missiles launched by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
On Thursday, U.S. forces killed the leader of a terrorist group in Iraq, Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, a leader of the Iran-backed Harakat al-Nujaba involved in planning and carrying out attacks against American personnel, the Pentagon said Thursday.