The House Armed Services Committee has launched an investigation into how senior Pentagon leaders mishandled Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s emergency hospitalization and non-disclosure of a cancer diagnosis amid continued concerns from lawmakers about the military’s chain of command.
The move is likely just the first in a series of formal inquiries over the coming weeks into Austin’s health and lack of communication with the White House. Austin is expected to testify before multiple committees on the annual defense budget in the coming weeks, and the issue could dominate those appearances as well.
Austin, 70, has been receiving hospital care since Jan. 1, when he was rushed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after developing a urinary tract infection from complications related to prostate cancer surgery on Dec. 22.
Other senior military leaders were not informed of his condition until several days later. White House officials, including President Joe Biden, were not made aware the defense secretary was hospitalized until Jan. 5, and did not learn about his cancer diagnosis until Jan. 9.
In a statement, Austin acknowledged that “I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.” In a press briefing on Tuesday, White House officials said the handling of the matter was “not optimal,” but said Biden has no plans for a leadership change at the Pentagon.
In a letter to Austin on Tuesday, committee House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said panel members have “grave concerns” over his and other officials’ decision to not immediately inform Congress or the White House when the defense secretary was hospitalized on Jan. 1.
“With wars in Ukraine and Israel, the idea that the White House and even your own deputy did not understand the nature of your condition is patently unacceptable,” Rogers wrote. “Everything from on-going counterterrorism operations to nuclear command and control relies on a clear understanding of the secretary’s decision-making capacity.
“The Department is a robust institution, and it is designed to function under attack by our enemies, but it is not designed for a secretary who conceals being incapacitated.”
The committee inquiry will focus initially on Austin, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, and Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen. Pentagon officials said Magsamen learned of Austin’s hospitalization just hours after it occurred but took several days to share the news because of her own illness.
Rep. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, called for Austin’s resignation on Wednesday.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has not taken the same formal steps as its House counterpart, but members have requested more information on the incident from Austin and Defense Department leaders.
“This lack of disclosure must never happen again,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a statement on Monday. “I am tracking the situation closely and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information.”
Committee ranking member Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., has requested a briefing on the confusion surrounding Austin’s medical condition, asserting in a statement Tuesday that “an internal review ordered by the same chief of staff who played a part in this crisis is woefully inadequate.” On Wednesday, Senate Republicans also requested more information from the Pentagon regarding the timeline surrounding Austin’s hospitalization.
Earlier this week, Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., announced plans to file articles of impeachment against Austin for failing to publicly disclose his health problems. House Republican leaders have not announced any plans to move ahead with that or similar articles of impeachment filed by other Republican members against Austin last August, those concerning his handling of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., called for the resignation of Austin and “anyone who lied for him.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby earlier this week announced the White House and Pentagon would conduct reviews to ensure that similar communication issues do not happen again.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.