The Pentagon today released a timeline in an attempt to explain the events surrounding the medical condition of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who has been hospitalized since Jan. 1 with an unknown ailment and has drawn criticism for not immediately alerting the White House and Congress.
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, provided reporters with a three-page statement on the matter, saying Austin first underwent an “elective medical procedure” at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Dec. 22 and was discharged Dec. 23. During that time, Ryder said, Austin transferred “certain operational authorities” to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was away on vacation.
However, Ryder said, Austin “began experiencing severe pain” the night of Jan. 1 and was taken 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.
On the afternoon of Jan. 2, “certain authorities of the secretary of defense” were again transferred to Hicks.
“The secretary and deputy secretary’s staff as well as the Joint Staff were notified that the transfer had occurred through regular email notification procedures,” Ryder said.
But neither Hicks nor White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan were notified about Austin’s hospitalization until Jan. 4 -- two days later.
Ryder said the lag in communication was due to Austin’s chief of staff Kelly Magsamen being out sick with the flu.
“We are currently reviewing how we can improve these notification procedures, to include White House and congressional notifications,” Ryder said.
Military secretaries and other senior leaders, meanwhile, were not notified of Austin’s condition until the afternoon of Jan. 5. Austin resumed his full duties later that evening.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have released statements urging a speedy recovery for Austin but also voicing concern that they were not notified of his condition more quickly.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) released a joint statement last night, saying “several questions remain unanswered including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the president and Congress.”
“Transparency is vitally important,” they said. “Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI) said he is concerned that “vital chain of command and notification procedures were not followed while the secretary was under medical care.”
“He is taking responsibility for the situation, but this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the department,” he said.
The “lack of disclosure,” Reed said, “must never happen again.”
“I am tracking the situation closely and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information,” he said.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a statement alleging that DOD “deliberately withheld the secretary of defense’s medical condition for days.”
“That is unacceptable,” Wicker said. “We are learning more every hour about the department’s shocking defiance of the law. When one of the country’s two National Command Authorities is unable to perform their duties, military families, members of Congress and the American public deserve to know the full extent of the circumstances.”
Other Republicans were quick to pounce, with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) joining former President Donald Trump in calling on Austin to resign.
Ryder, in his statement, said that on the afternoon of Jan. 4, Hicks and Magsamen “immediately engaged on the drafting of a public statement and congressional outreach.”
“The deputy secretary also began to make contingency plans to return to Washington, DC on [Jan. 5],” Ryder said. “However, she was informed that same afternoon that the secretary was preparing to resume full communications capability and the associated operational responsibilities on Friday. She therefore remained in place to ensure the best communications posture in the interim.”
Austin, meanwhile, released a statement on Jan. 6 accepting full responsibility for the communication lapses regarding his absence.
“I also understand the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed,” he said. “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.”
Ryder, who received a letter from the Pentagon Press Association voicing the media’s concerns over the department’s lack of transparency, said he was informed about Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 2.
DOD “will be taking steps to improve our notification procedures,” he told reporters.
“And I am also personally committed to doing better in keeping you informed,” Ryder said. “Nothing is more important to the secretary of defense and the department than the trust and confidence of the American public we serve, and we will continue to work hard every day to earn and deserve that trust.”
Though Austin remains hospitalized, he is no longer in the ICU.
“He continues to experience discomfort but his prognosis is good,” Ryder said. “I expect him to be in contact throughout the day today with the senior leadership of the Department and the White House even as he focuses on his own recovery.”
Ryder said DOD does not have a specific date for Austin’s release from the hospital.
John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One today that the White House is reviewing the matter but stressed that President Biden has no plans to fire Austin.
"There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job," he said.