DOD reports no 'ill intent' in Austin's unannounced medical absence

By Tony Bertuca / February 26, 2024 at 3:12 PM

The Pentagon has concluded in an internal review that there was no "ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate" in how senior officials and staff handled the secrecy surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's hospitalization last month, releasing an unclassified summary today of key events and observations intended to improve the department's "transfer of authorities" and notification processes.

The classified review covers the period between Jan. 1 and Jan. 5 in which Austin was hospitalized for complications following surgery to treat prostate cancer. A key focus of the review was to evaluate the processes and procedures through which Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks was notified that she would be assuming Austin’s duties due to his medical absence.

The review found that Hicks was “at all times positioned” to perform Austin’s duties while he was hospitalized.

Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, told reporters today that “there was no gap in terms of when the transfer of authorities occurred.”

“There was never any gap in authorities of command and control,” he said.

Additionally, the 30-day review “focused on understanding the facts and evaluating the processes and procedures in place at the time to inform recommendations on process improvements, including relating to notifications,” the unclassified summary states.

Austin has been the target of significant criticism, especially from congressional Republicans, following news of his hospitalization as he did not notify President Biden, the White House National Security Council or Congress.

The internal review, which is separate from an ongoing Pentagon inspector general investigation, is unlikely to end the political controversy around the matter as Austin, who has apologized for how he handled the situation, is scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. Some lawmakers on the committee have called for his resignation over the incident.

The internal review itself has also been criticized by congressional Republicans as it was directed by Austin’s chief of staff Kelly Magsamen, who herself has been criticized by lawmakers for not notifying the White House and congressional defense committees.

The full review, which is classified, makes eight specific recommendations, while the unclassified summary attempts to provide “context” for the incident, noting Austin’s staff was “limited in three significant ways” when it came to notifying the White House and the public about his condition.

“First, medical privacy laws prohibited medical providers from candid sharing of medical information with the secretary’s staff,” the summary states. “Second, for privacy reasons, his staff were hesitant to pry or share any information that they did learn. Third, the secretary’s medical situation remained in flux and as long as he remained in the Critical Care Unit, timely secured communications could not be assured.”

The review summary states that in “hindsight” the department’s “process for making decisions to transfer the secretary’s authority could and should be improved.”

The summary states that “nothing examined during this review demonstrated any indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate.”