Ex-Pentagon Chief Panetta on Austin Incident: 'Serious Risk'

Defense secretary's secrecy over hospitalization, subject of a formal inquiry, remains in the spotlight
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 11, 2024 10:30 AM CST
Even Austin's Deputy Didn't Know He Was in Hospital
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks at a virtual meeting on Nov. 22 at the Pentagon in Washington.   (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is continuing to work from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on what's now the 11th day of his current hospitalization. Meanwhile, a storm continues to brew over the failure of the secretary, second in the line of military command, to notify officials that he was in intensive care for days. The episode "has fueled bipartisan criticism and a barrage of attacks from Republicans on the competence of the White House," per USA Today. "If you're not informing the president and Congress in the area of national security, where a crisis is almost an everyday challenge, there's a possibility that something is not responded to or somebody overresponds to a crisis," former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tells the outlet. "That's a serious risk."

On the second day of his hospitalization, deputy defense chief Kathleen Hicks was called on to assume some of his duties while on vacation with family in Puerto Rico. But even she wasn't told Austin was in the hospital, the Wall Street Journal reports. Neither, apparently, was Sasha Baker, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, who was the most senior official at the Pentagon at the time. There'd been a transfer of power to Hicks as Austin underwent a prostatectomy requiring general anesthesia on Dec. 22, but not when he was put in the ICU on Jan. 1 with severe pain stemming from a urinary tract infection and fluid collections in his abdomen. That day, his chief of staff was sick with the flu and her deputy was away, per the Journal.

The Pentagon informed Hicks she'd need to assume some of Austin's duties on Jan. 2 but without providing the reason, per the Journal. Only a few officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knew Austin was hospitalized, and only a small group of aides knew the reason, as would remain the case for two more days, according to the outlet. USA Today calls it "a stunning breach of protocol." The Pentagon has vowed to review "the notification process for assumption of functions and duties," while Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has opened a formal inquiry into Austin's actions. Former President Donald Trump has called for Austin to be "fired immediately," though the White House says Austin continues to have Biden's full support, per USA Today. (More Lloyd Austin stories.)

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