As the political firestorm surrounding U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s failure to notify President Joe Biden and top defense officials of his hospitalization grows, the White House announced that it will review what happened. “We’ll do what’s akin to a hot wash and try to see if processes and procedures need to be changed at all or modified so that we can learn from this,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.
Austin was hospitalized on Jan. 1, but this information was not shared with the White House or Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was filling in for him, until Jan. 4. The following day, Congress was informed minutes before the information was made public. Austin remains hospitalized but is “recovering well,” a department spokesman said.
The secrecy surrounding his hospitalization was highly unusual, and the news reportedly came as a shock to White House and DoD staff. Amid bipartisan criticisms of Austin’s handling of the incident, administration officials have insisted that Biden will neither fire him, nor accept his resignation.
Secrecy undercuts Biden’s promise of transparency
The incident is not some “minor miscommunication,” Brett Bruen, an Obama-era former diplomat told USA Today, adding that the White House and Pentagon working in a culture of secrecy from each other is “just plain dangerous.” The hiccup proves particularly troubling for Biden, raising questions about whether there are tensions between the White House and the Pentagon, Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic. Voters could also see the incident as hypocritical, as Biden had vowed to steer clear of the chaos of former president Donald Trump’s government. But the White House has a “false belief” that it “can brush this stuff under the rug,” Bruen said.
Austin’s absence during ongoing wars spurs Republican calls to sack him
Several Republicans have called for Austin’s immediate resignation, questioning whether his health and conduct make him fit to oversee several global conflicts, particularly the war in Gaza, which is threatening to evolve into a regional crisis. “Who was providing authorization for strikes and communicating orders from the president?” questioned Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla), adding his concerns about the lack of the chain of command and the absence of the defense secretary “at a time of two major wars.” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb) called Lloyd’s decision to not inform Biden a “terrible mistake” because it undermines Washington’s “zero fail nuclear deterrence mission” – although Vice noted that the secretary is not a necessary part of nuclear launch decisions. Meanwhile, Trump called for Austin to be fired “for improper professional conduct and dereliction of duty.”
‘Comedy of errors’ or Austin’s need for privacy could be behind secrecy
It’s still unclear why Austin didn’t tell anyone about his surgery. The delay in notifying the White House may have been due to a comedy of errors, as confusion over Austin’s wishes – while a sick chief of staff contributed to the chaos, Bloomberg reported. But other members of Austin’s senior staff learned of his hospitalization on Jan. 2 and did not notify senior administration officials either, a Pentagon spokesperson said on Monday. Politico’s Playbook wrote that Austin is an “intensely private man,” who may have believed in a level of privacy not afforded to a key cabinet member in charge of the United States’ defense.