‘Incompetence’: Democrats join Republicans in faulting Austin and his team over hospital secrecy

Last updated on February 27, 2024

Senate Democrats and Republicans emerged from a classified briefing Tuesday deeply frustrated by the initial secrecy surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization as well as the Pentagon’s own probe into the episode.

Pentagon officials briefed Senate Armed Services Committee members behind closed doors about the department’s 30-day investigation into the matter,
which found that senior officials had no “ill intent” in not informing
the White House or the public about Austin’s hospitalization until days later.

Some senators said they were also vexed that the review does not blame any staffers for the process and communications breakdown, in which the White House was not told of Austin’s early December cancer diagnosis, his late December surgery or his Jan. 1 hospitalization due to complications from the procedure.

But they also fumed about Austin, who has previously taken responsibility for the communication breakdown, for showing poor judgment.
Austin has said his need for privacy overcame
his duty to inform the commander in chief and the American people about his state.

The bipartisan frustrations with the classified review, the first examination into Austin’s secretive hospitalization, show the episode will likely continue to dog the Pentagon chief. And it’s a negative sign as Austin prepares to confront similar questions publicly on Thursday when he testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the matter.

“The secretary has taken responsibility; he is clearly responsible,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said. “People take their lead from the leader.”

She agreed with the report’s conclusion that there was no malicious intent by Austin or his staff.

“I don’t think there was anything untoward. My view is to never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence,” Shaheen said.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said he was among lawmakers in both parties who, during the briefing, questioned Austin’s judgment as defense secretary.

“Republicans and Democrats alike … had questions about trust, judgment, about lack of common sense, hiding behind process,” Cramer said. “What Lloyd Austin tried to get by with is just so obvious.”

Cramer stopped short of calling for Austin’s resignation but said the defense secretary needs to answer questions when he next appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the coming weeks to defend the administration’s budget request. Cramer criticized Austin for putting President Joe Biden in the awkward position of having to defend him after keeping him in the dark.

“I don’t know if he should resign or not,” Cramer said of Austin. “I would feel duty bound to if I was him.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the public needs to see the full report, parts of which are classified, and that it ought to be the basis for accountability.

“I have very strong, severe questions remaining for the Pentagon as to how this seeming concealment was handled, and I think there ought to be some public accountability,” Blumenthal said. “Whether there’s discipline or not, at this point, I’m not going to conclude but certainly the facts ought to be known.”

The review, ordered by Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, was sent to Congress late last week. An unclassified summary was released Monday by the Pentagon.

Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in early January for complications from a December surgery to treat prostate cancer. But it was three days before President Joe Biden and top White House officials learned of Austin’s hospitalization, despite his transferring authorities to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks. It took even more time for Biden and the public to learn that Austin had been diagnosed with cancer.

The public summary of the classified report says procedures to transfer authorities were followed normally during the episode, but also notes that Austin’s team “was faced with an unprecedented situation” during the Pentagon chief’s hospitalization. It also underscored that, given privacy concerns, Austin’s team was “hesitant to pry or share any information that they did learn.”

The briefing and report’s secrecy, Cramer argued, is designed to dodge public scrutiny and accountability.

“This briefing is a classic example of a lack of accountability,” Cramer said. “They sent a pretty low-level bureaucrat who did a 30-day process evaluation — interviewed a few people, came out with a secret report that doesn’t have a single secret in it, and they’re trying to run interference or obfuscate.”

Republicans in the briefing argued that Austin was already required by law to notify Congress that he was incapacitated. The briefing was conducted by Jennifer Walsh, director of administration and management at the Pentagon.

Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) defended the initial review, but said senators still need to see the findings of an investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general. The watchdog office said in January it would assess the handling of Austin’s hospitalization.

“This was a discrete look at [Austin’s] second hospitalization, and it was very well done,” Reed told reporters. “But there are additional issues that I think we have to look at and the IG is pursuing.

“I think we need more comprehensive reporting and that, I hope, will come with the IG’s report,” he said.

But it’s clear patience with Austin is running short for some lawmakers.

Ahead of what’s certain to be a tense House Armed Services hearing on Thursday, the panel’s Republican chair, Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, argued the review lacked accountability because it was “conducted by his own subordinates” and “subject to his approval.”

“This is why we are conducting our own investigation. We will seek answers at our hearing,” Rogers said in a statement on social media.