Internal review clears Pentagon staffers in botched reaction to defense secretary’s hospital stay

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When Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was rushed into the intensive care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last month, his military assistants made the call to transfer his authority to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks.

On Jan. 2, Ms. Hicks was notified she was now leading America’s armed forces while on vacation in Puerto Rico. She didn’t learn the reason for the sudden assumption of command until two days later — the same day President Biden was told about Mr. Austin’s hospital stay.

On Monday, the Defense Department released a three-page unclassified summary of an internal review of the events that began with his treatment for prostate cancer on December 22, 2023. It found that while their notification process could be improved, there was no ill intent on the part of anyone involved.

“The Secretary’s team was faced with an unprecedented situation and so they executed a transfer of authority in the same way that they had previously done,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

Mr. Austin’s staff was faced with several obstacles when he was taken into the ICU. Privacy laws prohibited hospital officials from sharing information about his medical condition and they were hesitant to release anything they did manage to learn. Also, Mr. Austin’s medical condition remained unpredictable, and secure communications couldn’t be assured as long as he remained there, according to the review.

“It wasn’t clear in the beginning if this was going to be a one-day visit or a two-day visit,” Gen. Ryder said. “Throughout the duration of the Secretary’s care at Walter Reed, either the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary was at all times in position to perform the functions as the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Secretary Austin reviewed the complete report and directed the implantation of its recommendations, including improved information-sharing inside the Pentagon and more detailed guidance for the deputy defense secretary in the event of a sudden transfer of authority.

“The Secretary and the Deputy Secretary were fully prepared to support the president as command-in-chief,” Gen. Ryder said.

Mr. Austin apologized in a Feb. 1 press conference after he returned to work at the Pentagon.

“I did not handle this right. I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis,” he said. “I should have also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibility.”

In addition to the internal review, the Defense Department’s Inspector General’s Office initiated a formal investigation. The delay in informing the White House and his colleagues in the Pentagon has drawn bipartisan rebukes from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, Mr. Austin is scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee about his secret hospital stay.

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