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Who was to blame for secrecy surrounding Austin’s hospitalization? A Pentagon report says no one

By LOLITA C. BALDOR and TARA COPP, Associated Press
Published: February 26, 2024, 3:16pm

WASHINGTON — An internal review blames privacy restrictions and staff hesitancy for the Pentagon’s failure last month to quickly notify the president and other senior leaders about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization for complications from prostate cancer surgery.

The review, which was done by Austin’s subordinates, largely absolves anyone of wrongdoing for the secrecy surrounding his hospitalization, which included several days in the intensive care unit. And it says flatly there was “no indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate.”

Instead, the 30-day examination of the lapse — which angered the White House and members of Congress — says procedures must be improved and information shared better when the defense secretary must transfer decision-making authorities to the deputy.

Austin has been called to Capitol Hill on Thursday for a House hearing and is expected to face sharp criticism. The Defense Department’s inspector general is also conducting a review, which has not yet been completed.

Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December and went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for surgery on Dec. 22. On Jan. 1, he was taken back to Walter Reed by ambulance after experiencing significant pain, and was moved to the intensive care unit the next day.

Although he transferred decision-making authorities to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks during his initial surgery and then again when he was in intensive care, he did not tell her why and he did not inform the White House.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged that public affairs and defense aides were told on Jan. 2 that Austin had been hospitalized but did not make it public and did not tell the military service leaders or the National Security Council until Jan. 4. Only then did President Joe Biden find out. It took four more days before the reason for his hospitalization was disclosed.

Defense officials released an unclassified summary of the review on Monday and a set of recommended changes. The review suggests there was no established method for handling such an incident, and the fact that his hospitalization was “unplanned” contributed to the failure to let others know.

It also says Austin’s staff was limited by medical privacy laws that prohibited doctors from providing information and they “were hesitant to pry or share any information they did learn.” It adds that since Austin’s condition was “in flux” they could not ensure “timely secured communications.”

Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Monday that Austin’s aides found themselves in an “unprecedented situation.” He said that as Austin was being moved into intensive care, his aides recognized that he would not have access to critical communications, and they made the decision to transfer authorities to the deputy.

The fact that staff and not Austin made the decision raised questions about who was in control of the department at that moment, including America’s nuclear arsenal. Ryder said there were “no gaps” in command and control of the department.

Pressed on the lack of blame and whether anyone is being disciplined, Ryder said, “as the secretary has said, the buck stops with him and he’s taking responsibility for not notifying the president and the White House sooner.”

He added that “dedicated public servants were doing what they thought was the right thing.”

The 30-day review was finished and submitted to Austin on Feb. 8, but only parts of it were publicly released. The Pentagon has argued that portions of the report are classified.

Austin, in a press briefing after he returned to work, told reporters that he never told his staff to keep his surgery and hospitalization secret from the White House, but acknowledged he should have handled it differently and he apologized for keeping Biden and others in the dark. He denied there was a culture of secrecy in his office, and also said that staff members may have perceived that “they’re doing things in my best interest.”

The recommended changes include better guidelines for the transfer of authorities and better reporting requirements during those incidents.

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His secrecy about the hospitalizations prompted the White House to issue new guidelines to ensure it will be informed any time a Cabinet head transfers decision-making authorities when they are unreachable due to medical, travel or other reasons.

Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, ordered the 30-day review on Jan. 8, which was done by Jennifer Walsh, the Pentagon’s director of administration and management. Walsh is a career defense worker, not a political appointee, Ryder said,.

In a memo released at the time, Magsamen said the review should include a timeline of events and notifications after Austin was taken to the hospital by ambulance on Jan. 1. She said it must examine the existing process for when a secretary transfers decision-making authorities and who should be notified, and make recommendations for improvement.

Her memo also made some interim changes to vastly expand the number of people who must be notified in future transfers of authority and that they must provide a reason.

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