4 Aides to Austin Waited 2 Days to Tell White House About His Hospitalization

Four top aides to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III were informed last Tuesday that he had been hospitalized a day earlier but did not notify the White House until two days later, the Pentagon said on Monday.

The aides were made aware last Tuesday that Mr. Austin was rushed by ambulance to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., but said nothing to White House officials, awaiting updates on the secretary’s medical condition, Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.

In addition to General Ryder, the aides are Kelly E. Magsamen, Mr. Austin’s chief of staff, and Lt. Gen. Ronald Clark, the secretary’s senior military aide. General Ryder said that a fourth aide, Chris Meagher, the assistant to the secretary for public affairs, notified him.

Mr. Austin remained in the hospital on Monday but was in “good condition” and conducting official business, General Ryder said. The Pentagon has declined to disclose details of the medical procedure.

Despite criticism of how the situation has been handled, President Biden has full confidence in his defense secretary, said John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman.

“The president’s No. 1 focus is on the secretary’s recovery, and he looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible,” he said. “The president respects the fact that Secretary Austin took ownership for the lack of transparency. He also respects the amazing job he’s done.”

“There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job.”

The Defense Department is conducting an internal review of the processes and procedures for notifying the White House and Congress should a defense secretary be hospitalized or otherwise incapacitated, General Ryder said.

General Ryder told The New York Times on Sunday that because Ms. Magsamen was ill, she was unable to notify other Pentagon and White House officials until Thursday. At that time, he said, Ms. Magsamen notified Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary, and Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, about Mr. Austin’s hospitalization.

General Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon that after he was notified last Tuesday about Mr. Austin’s hospitalization, he concluded that he was “not at liberty” to disclose that information.

“I should have pushed harder to get an update and to press for a public acknowledgment sooner,” General Ryder said. “I have no excuse.”

Despite the 70-minute briefing at the Pentagon on Monday, many questions remain about Mr. Austin’s medical condition and why White House officials, lawmakers and even other top Pentagon aides were not notified sooner.

Also unclear is how and when the secretary’s responsibilities were delegated to Ms. Hicks and why days passed before Mr. Biden and Congress were notified.

Mr. Austin issued a brief statement on Saturday night after speaking with Mr. Biden earlier in the day.

“I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed,” he said. “I commit to doing better.”

Mr. Austin added, “This was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decision about disclosure.”

General Ryder’s account was the latest version of a shifting narrative that the Pentagon has presented to the public since it announced late Friday that Mr. Austin was in the hospital, suffering from complications of an elective medical procedure in late December.

At 5:03 p.m. on Friday, General Ryder issued a bare-bones statement saying that Mr. Austin had been in the hospital all week from unspecified complications after an unspecified medical procedure. “At all times, the deputy secretary of defense was prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the secretary, if required,” the statement said.

No mention was made of the fact that the deputy secretary, Ms. Hicks, was in Puerto Rico on vacation and had only found out the day before that Mr. Austin was in the hospital.

On Saturday, senior administration officials said that no one at the White House had been made aware that Mr. Austin was hospitalized until Thursday. A U.S. official said that senior Pentagon officials, including Ms. Magsamen, were not informed until Thursday, at which point she told the White House.

On Sunday, Pentagon officials said that Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was informed by his staff the day after Mr. Austin entered the hospital. But they said that Ms. Hicks was not told that Mr. Austin was hospitalized until Thursday.

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, on Monday joined the growing congressional call for accountability.

“Given the extremely serious military decisions that the United States is dealing with, including attacks on our troops by Iranian-backed proxies, the war in the Middle East and the ongoing aggression by Russia in Ukraine, it is inexplicable that the secretary’s condition remains shrouded in secrecy,” she said in a statement. “I wish him a speedy recovery, but also believe he must be forthcoming about the nature of his illness and his ability to do his job.”

Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also wished Mr. Austin “a speedy and complete recovery.”

He added: “This lack of disclosure must never happen again. I am tracking the situation closely and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting.

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