The Case of the Missing SECDEF
A truly weird story.
POLITICO (“Pentagon didn’t inform Biden, White House for days about Austin’s hospitalization“):
The Pentagon did not tell President Joe Biden and other top officials about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization for three days, three U.S. officials said.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior White House aides didn’t know of Austin’s Jan. 1 hospitalization until the Defense Department sent over word Jan. 4, two other U.S. officials said. Sullivan informed Biden shortly after DOD’s Thursday notification.
The officials said it was highly unlikely that Austin conveyed word to Biden privately before Sullivan’s briefing. “If Jake didn’t know, no way the president knew,” one of them said. “Who would have told him of Austin’s condition if not Jake? And if someone did tell the president, Jake would’ve been his first call.”
All officials and other people who spoke for this story were granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
Biden held a “cordial conversation” with Austin on Saturday night, per one of the U.S. officials. “The president has complete trust and confidence in Secretary Austin,” the official said. A National Security Council spokesperson echoed that sentiment, noting Biden “is looking forward to [Austin] getting back to the Pentagon.”
But the news of Austin’s situation came as a shock to all White House staff as they were unaware the Pentagon boss was dealing with complications following an elective medical procedure, the officials said. National Security Council staffers were surprised it took the Pentagon so long to let them know of Austin’s status. The Pentagon didn’t make the information public until Friday evening, notifying Congress about 15 minutes before releasing a public statement.
“This should not have happened this way,” said one of the U.S. officials. The NSC and Pentagon declined comment.
In a Saturday statement after an earlier version of this story published, Austin said, “I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better. But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Chuck Hagel, the former senator who served as defense secretary during the Obama administration, said the Pentagon absolutely had to let the NSC know about Austin’s condition and whereabouts. “The NSC is part of your team, it’s part of the family,” he stated during a brief interview. “The president has to know where his Cabinet members are at all times.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Austin “ must address promptly” why the White House wasn’t informed of his hospitalization for days. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), SASC’s top Republican, called Austin’s silence “unacceptable” and demanded a briefing on the matter.
NBC News reports that Austin spent four days in the intensive care unit.
On Friday evening, as many people were turning toward their weekends, DOD spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder announced that Austin had been hospitalized since Jan. 1. His deputy, Kathleen Hicks, partially assumed some of his duties from Jan. 1 until Jan. 5, when he resumed his full duties, according to one senior DOD official.
But Austin’s hospitalization was a closely guarded secret, kept from even senior Pentagon officials and congressional leaders until just before the public statement, according to nine DOD officials and two congressional aides. Some Pentagon officials only learned of Austin’s situation through Ryder’s news release. One of the DOD officials said their office was told by Austin’s aides that the secretary was working from home for the week.
This is, to say the least, highly peculiar.
Kath Hicks is more than capable of fulfilling the duties of SECDEF and, indeed, with very narrow exceptions has the full authority of SECDEF at all times. The Deputy, not the Secretary, runs the day-to-day operation of the Department. But, it turns out, she was on vacation in Puerto Rico during the entirety of Austin’s hospitalization.
Still, it’s inexplicable that Austin’s hospitalization—let alone several-day stint in the ICU—wasn’t immediately run up the flagpole.
The various press reports have histrionic quotes from the likes of Tom Cotton and notes of outrage from the Pentagon press corps about the lack of transparency. I take then with a grain of salt. But Tom Nichols is right that “Lloyd Austin Owes Americans an Explanation.”
In itself, the secretary’s incapacity is not a crisis; the Pentagon’s chain of command has multiple people who can take over for him. And there might be good reasons to keep such news, at least temporarily, away from the public (and America’s enemies).
The public, however, deserves better answers to important questions.
Who, for example, was in charge and able to execute the secretary’s duties during his illness—including taking Austin’s place in the nuclear chain of command? When the president orders the use of nuclear weapons, the secretary of defense confirms those orders to the U.S. Strategic Command. (The secretary has no veto, but he or she must verify that the orders are authentic and came from the president.) In theory, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks would take Austin’s place as the acting secretary, but the Pentagon, according to the Washington Post, has been “ambiguous about what happened in this case,” saying only that Hicks “‘was prepared to act for and exercise the powers’ of the defense secretary, if required.”
“If required?” The Pentagon was already having a busy week: While Austin was in the hospital, the United States launched an airstrike in Iraq, killing one of the leaders of an Iranian-backed militia. Austin apparently signed off on the strike before his hospitalization, but what if something had gone wrong and a crisis erupted? What if the White House couldn’t find its own secretary of defense quickly in a deteriorating military situation?
Or, in an even more hair-raising possibility, what if something else had gone wrong—something far more catastrophic?
The retired Cold War nuclear expert can’t resist a historical anecdote:
At approximately 3 am on November 9, 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was awakened by a call from his military aide, Major General William Odom. NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, had detected the launch of a massive nuclear strike from the Soviet Union against the United States. Brzezinski was about to call the president—he chose not to wake his wife, knowing that she, and everyone else in Washington, D.C., would be dead within a half hour—when Odom called back. It was all a terrible mistake. Someone had goofed, and fed a mock-attack training tape into NORAD’s computers.
Had anyone involved taken one more step, Carter would have needed an immediate link to his secretary of defense, Harold Brown, both to confirm the attack and order retaliation. Imagine, at such a moment, what might have happened if no one at the White House could locate Brown—especially if the attack turned out to be real.
Fortunately, the United States did not suffer such a crisis, real or mistaken, while Austin was out of commission. But if Biden and Sullivan had needed to find Austin in a hurry, precious minutes would have been lost in the ensuing confusion. Merely apologizing for keeping the public in the dark isn’t enough. President Biden, Congress, and the American people, need to know exactly what just happened over the past five days.
It’s honestly odd that Austin went in for elective surgery—which by definition isn’t emergent or urgent—while Hicks was on leave. That neither the President nor the National Security Advisor knew he was even out of commission is simply unacceptable.