The Pentagon official watchdog said it will conduct an internal probe into the circumstances surrounding Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s undisclosed hospitalizations in December and January, according to a memo released to the public Thursday.
Austin and staff closest to him failed to communicate an early December prostate cancer diagnosis or Dec. 22 procedure, during which the Pentagon chief underwent general anesthesia, to his deputy or key national security leaders in the White House. Then, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and the White House still did not know when Austin was taken by ambulance to the hospital on Jan. 1 following complications from the still secret procedure and placed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), until Jan. 4, possibly a breach of protocol the Department of Defense’s (DOD) watchdog promised to investigate, the memo says.
“The objective of the review is to examine the roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities, and actions related to the Secretary of Defense’s hospitalization in December 2023-January 2024, and assess whether the DoD’s policies and procedures are sufficient to ensure timely and appropriate notifications and the effective transition of authorities as may be warranted due to health-based or other unavailability of senior leadership,” Robert Storch, the DOD’s Inspector General, wrote in the Jan. 10 memo to Austin and Hicks.
Lawmakers and experts have voiced concerns over the potential disruption to the chain of command and breach of trust ensuing from Austin’s secrecy over his illness and hospitalizations.
Austin’s chief of staff on Tuesday ordered a 30-day internal review aimed at identifying the facts around how Austin transferred some of his authorities to his deputy for days without disclosing to key officials, including the deputy defense secretary, that he had been hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
In addition, the White House has ordered all executive agencies to review procedures for delegating powers if the department secretaries are unable to perform their duties following news of Austin’s undisclosed hospitalization.
Hicks reportedly conducted some routine duties on Austin’s behalf while on vacation in Puerto Rico between Jan. 1 and Jan. 4, when she learned the reason Austin had transferred some authorities.
The Inspector General’s review could expand in scope if necessary and will take place “at the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” but “may identify additional offices and personnel who might have information relevant to our review,” Storch wrote.
Uncertainty remains over where communication broke down.
Chief of Staff Kelly Magsamen knew Austin was admitted to the ICU, but could not perform appropriate notification procedures due to her own illness, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday. The White House reportedly advised the Pentagon to disclose to the public on the preceding Friday that Austin had been hospitalized, suggesting lingering reticence to be forthcoming about the secretary’s status.