Jan 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Defense secretary faces growing heat from Congress over hospitalization

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Photo: Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty Images.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is facing a growing outcry from members of Congress over the secrecy around his hospitalization.

Why it matters: Calls for Austin to clear up unanswered questions about the incident are now coming from congressional leaders in both parties, creating pressure for the Pentagon to cooperate.

Driving the news: Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryder set off a firestorm over the weekend with a statement on Friday evening revealing that Austin was admitted to Walter Reed hospital on Jan. 1 "for complications following a recent elective medical procedure."

  • Subsequent reporting revealed that Biden administration officials, and even President Biden himself, weren't told of the hospitalization for days, with the Pentagon informing Congress just before the public release on Friday.
  • Austin's responsibilities were delegated to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time and was not specifically told Austin was hospitalized until Jan. 4, according to CNN.
  • Austin said in a statement on Saturday that he "could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed" and committed to "doing better," adding that he takes "full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure."

What they're saying: In a joint statement, House Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said they are "concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary's condition was handled."

  • "Several questions remain unanswered," they continued – including details about the surgery and the complications, Austin's current health status, how and when the delegations of his responsibility were made and the reasons for the delay in informing Biden and Congress.
  • "Transparency is vitally important. 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."
  • Republicans on both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have harshly criticized Austin and the Pentagon for the incident, with some calling for concrete consequences.

The latest: Asked for comment, the Pentagon pointed to a statement from Ryder on Sunday saying Austin "remains hospitalized" but is "recovering well and in good spirits."

  • Austin "has received operational updates and has provided necessary guidance to his team" since resuming his duties on Friday evening, Ryder said, adding that he spoke to President Biden on Saturday and has been in touch with Hicks, Joint Chiefs Chairman C.Q. Brown and his senior staff.
  • "While we do not have a specific date for his release at this time, we will continue to provide updates on the Secretary's status as they become available," Ryder said.
Go deeper