Austin admits admin should’ve notified Congress ‘earlier’ about Syria strike

Last updated on March 28, 2023

The Biden administration should have notified Congress about a deadly attack on an American contractor in Syria “earlier” than it did, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Tuesday.

During a Senate Armed Services hearing, lawmakers pressed Austin on a more than 13-hour lag between a drone attack launched by Iranian proxies last Thursday that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded six other Americans. The strike occurred at 6:38 a.m. in Washington, D.C., but the administration didn’t notify lawmakers until around 8 p.m. that same day, in which U.S. officials also let lawmakers know about a retaliatory plan in the works.

During those 13 hours, the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, testified in front of the House Armed Services Committee, and senators debated amendments to a bill that would repeal two authorizations for the use of military force, some of which were about Iranian aggression on American troops.

The gap prompted Republicans to question if the administration held off on notifying Congress to shield Kurilla from tough questions and to ensure the war-powers measure sailed through the upper chamber.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Austin on Tuesday if the Pentagon’s congressional affairs team should’ve notified Congress sooner, especially because of the war powers vote. Austin agreed: “We should’ve notified you earlier.”

The secretary noted that the U.S. suffered an attack and responded in one day, letting Congress know about both events in between. “We take the War Powers Act very seriously,” Austin said, seated alongside Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley.

Later in the hearing, Austin told Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that there was no connection between the notifications and the war powers vote.

“Secretary Austin, I don’t believe you,” Cotton responded, noting that an amendment by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) “directly touched” on the Syria strike scenario. “That’s my belief, nothing you can say is going to change my belief on that.”

“I just want to say, senator, that is absolutely not true,” Austin said.

“Maybe you didn’t personally do it, but I believe entirely that people in your office did that,” Cotton replied.

Tess Bridgeman, the co-editor in chief of Just Security, told POLITICO on Monday that the executive branch isn’t required to include casualty information in reports to Congress.

“That said, the Biden administration did include casualty information in its notification to Congress, even though it was not required to do so,” she added.