Austin says he expected his staff would notify of hospitalization

by Vern Evans

During the two weeks that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spent in the hospital early this year, officials have emphasized that there was never a gap in the chain of command.

But when Austin went to Capitol Hill on Thursday to answer for his lack of transparency with his staff or the president, an open question remained regarding how neither the secretary nor anyone on his staff thought it was imperative to notify the White House that the defense secretary was in the hospital until three days in.

Twice during two hours of testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Austin expressed accountability for the lack of notification, but added that he expected his staff would have taken care of it for him, as he didn’t have a phone from the time he got into an ambulance the night of Jan. 1.

“In terms of the hospitalization … I was the patient,” Austin told Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Mich. “And so my expectation is that the organization informed the right agencies, and so on.”

Earlier, Austin told Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., that, “in my case, I know I would expect that my organization would do the right things to notify senior leaders, if I am the patient in the hospital.”

It was the first time Austin laid any blame for the events, other than previously admitting that he “didn’t get this right.”

Austin has said he never told anyone not to inform the chain of command, amid questions that he was attempting to keep his hospitalization a secret.

Austin has admitted that he chose not to inform anyone of his initial prostate cancer diagnosis or the Dec. 22 procedure to treat it, complications which landed him in the hospital on Jan. 1.

Previously, the Pentagon’s timeline has noted that Austin’s security team informed a military aide, who informed his chief of staff that he had gone to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and that ― while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Pentagon’s press secretary and others were informed on Jan. 2 ― the chief of staff waited until Jan. 4 to inform the president and Congress.

The reason provided by the Pentagon for this lag was that Kelly Magsumen, Austin’s chief of staff, was out with the flu on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3, and waited to notify until she was back at work.

A review released Monday included more details, though it did not mention Magsumen specifically, instead stating that multiple members of Austin’s staff hesitated to make any notifications because they were concerned about “medical privacy laws” and a lack of written guidance for how to handle this specific situation.

The review’s recommendations do include more written guidelines, but there is also a requirement to explain to staff what is expected of them in these situations and what the privacy considerations actually are.

Lawmakers were incensed that neither Austin nor his staff notified the president or Congress in a timely manner, regardless of whether there was a written instruction somewhere that compelled them to do it.

“I do however think it was an extreme lack of leadership at some level, and I hope we identify that and there are consequences,” Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., told Austin.

Multiple Republican lawmakers called for “consequences,” though those are unlikely to come. As a presidential appointee, Austin can only be fired by President Joe Biden, who has previously said he accepts Austin’s explanation and is not considering his removal.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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