In an incident that has raised eyebrows across Washington, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent hospital stay, including time in the intensive care unit, was kept under wraps by the White House and Pentagon officials. This lack of communication has sparked a flurry of concerns and criticisms, given Austin’s critical role in the U.S. military and foreign policy.
Austin, who oversees the 1.4 million members of the U.S. military, was hospitalized on January 1 for complications following an elective surgery. However, the details of this surgery and the subsequent hospitalization were not disclosed to key officials at the Pentagon or the White House. This lapse in communication is particularly alarming considering Austin’s involvement in numerous top foreign policy challenges under President Joe Biden’s administration.
The responsibility of handling Austin’s duties during his absence seemingly fell to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time. The lack of a clear explanation for Austin’s hospitalization and the absence of a formal delegation of his duties have led to calls for accountability from both sides of the political aisle.
A Department of Defense official, speaking to Politico which first reported the story, called for serious repercussions, stating, “Someone’s head has to roll.” This sentiment was echoed by Republican Senator Roger Wicker, the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Forces committee, who described the situation as “unacceptable” and called for a hearing to address the issue.
Even Democratic Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina expressed his displeasure on a Sunday morning show, highlighting the bipartisan concern over Austin’s failure to communicate his health status.
Austin issued an apology on Saturday, acknowledging the need for improvement in handling such situations in the future. However, he stopped short of addressing his failure to inform President Biden directly about his hospitalization.
Despite the uproar, Austin’s position seems secure for now. His deep involvement in pressing foreign policy challenges, such as the U.S. support for Ukraine, makes him a pivotal figure in the Biden administration. Furthermore, his connection to Biden, stemming from his service in Iraq alongside Biden’s late son, Beau Biden, adds a layer of complexity to the situation.
This episode sheds light on the need for transparency and clear lines of communication within the highest ranks of the U.S. government, especially in departments as crucial as the Department of Defense. As the Biden administration navigates numerous international challenges, the incident serves as a reminder of the importance of leadership accountability and the potential risks of lapses in communication.