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The Pentagon's 2nd in command was not informed of defense secretary's hospitalization

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a joint press conference with Israel's defense minister in Tel Aviv on Dec. 18.
Alberto Pizzoli
AFP via Getty Images
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a joint press conference with Israel's defense minister in Tel Aviv on Dec. 18.

Updated January 8, 2024 at 7:32 PM ET

The No. 2 official at the Pentagon was kept in the dark about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's hospitalization even after she was filling in for him, according to a senior defense official.

Austin was hospitalized on Jan. 1 for complications from an elective procedure.

He remained hospitalized as of Monday evening at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the Pentagon said, though he has returned to his full duties.

Austin had been in the intensive care unit, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Monday, though he has now been moved to a more private area.

Austin is "recovering well and in good spirits," Ryder said. "He continues to experience discomfort but his prognosis is good." From the hospital he has access to secure communications "and continues to monitor DoD's day-to-day operations worldwide."

Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense, assumed the top role on Tuesday, Jan. 2, a not unusual transfer of power that sometimes occurs purely for operational reasons. She did not learn of Austin's hospitalization until that Thursday, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time.

When Hicks learned of Austin's hospitalization, she "immediately engaged staff on the drafting of a public statement and congressional outreach. She also began to make contingency plans to return to Washington, D.C., on Friday. However, she was informed that afternoon that the secretary was preparing to resume full communications capability and the associated operational responsibilities on Friday," the official said.

The secrecy surrounding Austin's hospitalization is highly unusual. Not even his boss, the president, knew of it; nor was Congress informed.

Pentagon officials did not make a public announcement about Austin's hospitalization until Friday. The secrecy is in contrast to the usual practice among the president and Cabinet members, who will generally provide notice of when they are stepping away from their official duties.

Austin said in a statement released Saturday evening: "I am very glad to be on the mend and look forward to returning to the Pentagon soon. 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 Pentagon and Austin have not specified the nature of his medical procedure.

The defense secretary resumed his full duties on Friday. In the intervening days, Hicks "was prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary, if required," Ryder said in a statement on Friday.

NPR has confirmed that the Pentagon did not inform the White House about Austin's hospitalization until Thursday, which was first reported by Politico.

The board of directors of the Pentagon Press Association, a group that represents journalists covering the military, said in a letter to Pentagon public affairs leaders that the delay in informing the public was an "outrage."

"It falls far below the normal disclosure standards that are customary by other federal departments when senior officials undergo medical procedures or are temporarily incapacitated," the group's board said.

One Capitol Hill source told NPR that lawmakers received word of Austin's hospitalization just a half hour before the Pentagon's press release on Friday.

"We still haven't been told specifics or anything more than what you saw [the Pentagon] say," said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the lack of information was "unacceptable."

"When one of the country's two National Command Authorities [the president and secretary of defense] is unable to perform their duties, military families, Members of Congress, and the American public deserve to know the full extent of the circumstances," he said in a statement.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, issued a joint statement on Sunday with the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington.

They said they were "concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary's condition was handled" and had questions about his current health and the reason for delaying notification.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday that President Biden continues to have "complete confidence" in Austin's leadership despite some Republican calls for him to resign over the lack of communication.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.