When the Secretary of Defense was off work and in an intensive care unit over the course of four days, no one at the Pentagon nor in Washington even knew he was gone.
COMMENTARY by Susan Katz Keating
The U.S. security world is rightly astounded and outraged that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spent five days in hospital – including four in an intensive care unit – before the Pentagon let drop a sanitized version of the news late on Friday evening. Much of the outrage has centered on the revelation that neither Austin nor the Pentagon told anyone the Secretary of Defense was out of commission. The most pressing question, though, is why, over the course of five days, no one knew he was gone.
“We didn’t notice because nothing was different,” according to one source who works at the Pentagon. “It’s not like the leader suddenly vanished.”
The source echoed two others who similarly said they saw no change inside the Pentagon when Austin went into hospital.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
The news emerged Jan. 5 when Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder announced that Austin had been hospitalized since New Year’s Day. In his statement, Ryder took pains to note that the country’s defense was in good hands.
“At all times, the Deputy Secretary of Defense [Kathleen Hicks] was prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary, if required,” Ryder wrote.
The announcement was made so much under the radar that I learned about it from a Russian news site, while scanning for updates on the Russian Ministry of Defense. By that point, the American media had not sent out any news alerts about Austin.
The U.S. news media was not alone in the dark.
According to officials at the Pentagon and in the White House, the few cognoscenti did not even tell President Joe Biden that Austin was in hospital. Nor did they tell anyone in Congress, nor high ranking officials in the Department of Defense, nor the National Security Council. On Friday night, though, the news trickled out.
Outraged reaction spread through Washington.
Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), who sits on the Armed Services Committee, honed in on the repercussions for national security.
“The Secretary of Defense is the key link in the chain of command between the president and the uniformed military, including the nuclear chain of command, when the weightiest of decisions must be made in minutes,” Cotton wrote in a Saturday statement. “If this report is true, there must be consequences for this shocking breakdown.”
“The Pentagon had ample opportunity to disclose Secretary Austin’s absence including during a media briefing on Thursday,” MRE President Howard Altman wrote in a statement. “The lack of disclosure has created a serious breach of trust at a critical juncture. It is also another troubling sign of a growing lack of transparency. That the information about a five-day absence was not released until Friday at 5 p.m. is keeping in the worst traditions of obfuscation and opacity.“
Austin, for his part, issued his own statement on Saturday night, thanking his medical team for taking good care of him. He added that he understands “the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.”
He ended with a note that was both conciliatory and, to my view, defiant.
“But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure,” Austin wrote.
The Pentagon of course had backup when Austin went into hospital. There is a line of succession, and someone always has the baton. But the American people (to include our leaders) need to know when it is passed, and to whom. Handoffs are awkward. Deputy Hicks, who insiders tell me is highly qualified and a steady hand at the helm, was out of the country when Austin went MIA.
“We noticed when Hicks was gone,” a source who works at the Pentagon told me. “With Austin, we didn’t notice anything.”
And that is the larger problem. When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was off work and in an intensive care unit over the course of four days, no one at the Pentagon nor in Washington even knew he was gone.
Susan Katz Keating is the publisher and editor in chief at Soldier of Fortune.