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Republicans blast US Defense Secretary Austin over health secrecy

Published 02/29/2024, 12:03 AM
Updated 02/29/2024, 05:22 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks on the day of the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute in honor of General Mark A. Milley, 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an Armed Forces Hail in honor of General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., th

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republican lawmakers slammed U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a hearing on Thursday for failing to disclose his prostrate cancer diagnosis, his surgery and his subsequent hospitalization to President Joe Biden or even his deputy at the Pentagon.

Austin, with support from Democrats on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, sought to dispel accusations that his secrecy jeopardized national security or that his unnoticed absence demonstrated his lack of influence in Biden's Democratic administration.

But Republicans, who are seeking to defeat Biden in the presidential election in November, questioned how the U.S. president could go for days without discovering Austin was hospitalized.

"I find it very concerning that the secretary could be hospitalized for three days without anyone else in the administration even noticing," said Representative Mike Rogers (NYSE:ROG), the committee's chairman.

"That suggests Secretary Austin's advice is not sought or heeded in the White House, even while military operations were ongoing in the Middle East."

Austin did not tell Biden or even his own senior staff about his cancer diagnosis or initial prostate cancer surgery in December. He also made no such notification calls when he was hospitalized on Jan. 1 for post-surgical complications.

Austin's aides who were with him at the hospital decided on their own to transfer his authorities to his deputy when he was moved on Jan. 2 to the intensive care unit, since he would no longer be able to access secure communications.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks had been on a beach vacation in Puerto Rico and was not told how long she would be in charge, that Austin was in the hospital or even that he was ill, officials say.

Republicans pounced on him, saying Biden himself wouldn't have known who to call in a crisis. Hicks also would not have realized the gravity of the situation.

"If any American worker did what you did, they would be fired," Representative Nancy Mace, a Republican, told Austin during one heated exchange.

"And they aren't the number two in the chain of command of the greatest and most lethal fighting force in the world."

Austin has apologized for the way he handled the matter, including to Biden himself, but his appearance before the committee was the first time lawmakers could directly question him.

The hearing was one of the most contentious and personal that Austin, a retired four-star general and America's first Black defense secretary, has faced in his career.

Intensely private, Austin had hoped to keep his medical situation to himself. But his handling of the matter had the opposite effect, triggering a public spectacle, as well as a political furor that has led to multiple investigations.

Representative Jim Banks, a Republican, called the secret hospitalization a disgrace. He pointed to Chinese and Russian accounts that portrayed chaos and mismanagement at the Pentagon.

"What you've done has embarrassed us," Banks said.

Some prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have called for Austin to be removed from his post.

"Are you surprised the president didn't call for your resignation? I'm surprised," Banks said.

Austin responded: "The president has expressed full faith and confidence in me."

The Pentagon released the results from an internal 30-day review on Monday that effectively absolved itself of any wrongdoing. It concluded that "nothing examined during this review demonstrated any indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate."

Rogers and other lawmakers lambasted the report and Austin himself for failing to provide real answers for who specifically knew what, when and who failed to perform their basic duties.

© Reuters. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing about his failure to disclose his cancer diagnosis and subsequent hospitalizations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 29, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

"We were led to believe your 30-day internal review would shed light on the matter," Rogers said.

  "But it includes no explanation of why the president and his staff were left in the dark. It makes no recommendations to improve communication with the White House. And, unsurprisingly, it holds no one accountable."

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