Defense Sec. Austin’s Vanishing Trick Stuns and Vexes Both Sides
When people criticize the Biden administration’s lack of leadership, they usually don’t mean it literally. But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s decision to keep his days-long hospitalization a secret from everyone (including the president) has rocked the D.C. establishment. Not since the Supreme Court leaker — a mystery that remains unsolved — has the political world been so stunned by a breach of protocol. What possible “elective surgery” could have made the chief of America’s military operations AWOL at such a critical time? And why on earth wouldn’t he tell his team?
The questions have reached a fevered pitch, even as Austin lies in a bed at Walter Reed Hospital, refusing to admit why he was in the ICU on January 1 and his chain-of-command didn’t know it. Keeping people in the dark was a personal decision he admitted Saturday, as the situation spiraled further out of control. Attempting to do some damage control, the 70-year-old secretary said, “I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” the DOD boss promised. “But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Hiding his story from the public is one thing, but leaving the president and his staff out of the loop at a time of war? Inexcusable. Normal people tell their supervisors when they’re going to the dentist for a routine cleaning. For the head of America’s national defense to disappear to the intensive care unit without a word is beyond appalling. Had something gone awry, Austin’s disappearance could have had disastrous, life-threatening consequences for the entire country.
Four days passed before the National Security Council and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks were informed about Austin’s condition. Air Force Major Gen. Pat Ryder blamed the lack of communication on Austin’s chief of staff, who was apparently ill and “unable to make notifications before then.” Surely, she wasn’t the only person capable of sending an email on a matter of such importance.
“The President of the United States didn’t know that his Secretary of Defense was hospitalized until four days later. That’s how safe America is right now,” Congressman Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) fumed.
Like so many of his colleagues, Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) warned that this subterfuge only “further erodes trust in the Biden Administration.” To him, it’s unfathomable why “… the Department of Defense deliberately withheld the Secretary of Defense’s medical condition for days. That is unacceptable. We are learning more every hour about the Department’s shocking defiance of the law. When one of the country’s two National Command Authorities 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 demanded a “full accounting of the facts” for Congress immediately.
And he wasn’t the only one. Even Democrats were outraged by the secretary’s cover-up. In a joint statement, both the Republican chairman and Democratic ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee blasted the four-star general for leaving the nation vulnerable. “… [W]e are concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary’s condition was handled. Several questions remain unanswered including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the Secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the Secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the President and Congress.”
“Transparency is vitally important,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) insisted. “Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible.”
Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) was equally horrified. “Even apparently the National Security Council didn’t know it, the White House didn’t know it, Congress didn’t know it,” the Republican shook his head. “We’re at a time of a lot of turmoil internationally and suddenly had a secretary of Defense, more than just a matter of wasn’t there, actually sent over false information saying ‘I’m working from home’ when he’s not actually available at all,” he said. “That’s a whole different issue.”
Family Research Council’s Ken Blackwell is appalled by the incompetence. “Lack of communication is a real threat to our national security,” he told The Washington Stand. “This is another example of the Biden clown car.”
From the Associated Press to Washington Post, reporters openly criticized the “stunning lack of transparency” from the administration that made it such a top priority out of the gate. “Such secrecy, at a time when the United States is juggling myriad national security crises, runs counter to normal practice with the president and other senior U.S. officials and Cabinet members,” the AP’s Lolita Baldor wrote bluntly.
The Pentagon Press Association, a group of journalists on the DOD beat, also sent a scathing letter of protest, calling the delay in alerting the public “an outrage.” “At a time when there are growing threats to U.S. military service members in the Middle East and the U.S. is playing key national security roles in the wars in Israel and Ukraine, it is particularly critical for the American public to be informed about the health status and decision-making ability of its top defense leader,” the writers argued.
And it wasn’t exactly “a slow, quiet week at the Pentagon” for Austin to be MIA, National Review’s Jim Geraghty noted, pointing to the sinking of Houthi boats, the killing of U.S. forces in Iraq, the Ukraine war, and the ongoing search for hostages in Gaza. “Why can’t this administration just be normal?” he wanted to know.
If not normal, at least more careful. Lt. General (Ret.) Jerry Boykin had strong words for the secretary, whose responsibilities he well understands after his time as undersecretary of Defense for intelligence at the Pentagon.
“In my 36-plus years in the U.S. military, I have never seen a greater lapse of judgement by a senior official than what we’re witnessing now regarding Lloyd Austin’s duty station,” he told TWS. “This was not only an egregious lapse of judgement but also placed the nation in a dangerous situation. According to at least one news outlet, there were multiple attacks of various natures with no one manning the secretary’s position. This kind of behavior by Austin simply cannot be tolerated — and the question must be asked,” he insisted, “whether the secretary can handle the job that he’s in. In my opinion, the secretary needs to be closely evaluated for his fitness at this very critical job.”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.