On Monday, Jan. 8, Defense Department spokesman Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder took the podium to speak to the Pentagon press corps about Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his secret absence from duty. The brief was intended to clarify why his hospitalization was kept from the news media, the deputy secretary of defense, the National Security Council, the secretaries of the military departments, and the president. It did not do that.
If anything, the briefing raised more questions and turned a brighter light on the failure of the defense secretary to be a reliable leader of the national command. While Ryder explained Austin’s mysterious absence by addressing “timeline questions,” it clarified nothing about why the secretary believed it was essential to keep his boss and Pentagon staff in the dark.
Austin Started Medical Saga Before Christmas
It seems the medical mystery tour began three days before Christmas when Austin had an elective medical procedure at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, described by the hospital as “minimally invasive” surgery to “treat and cure” prostate cancer. During his brief stay, Ryder said, “certain operational authorities” transferred to the Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. On New Year’s Day, Austin developed extreme pain caused by a urinary tract infection that caused fluid to form in the abdominal area, so he returned to the hospital.
The secretary’s personal security detachment accompanied him to Walter Reed. The junior military aide met with the secretary on Jan. 2, and Ryder claimed “certain authorities of the Secretary of Defense were transferred to the Deputy Secretary of Defense,” who was vacationing in Puerto Rico and unaware of her new authority. The senior military assistant learned on Jan. 2 of the secretary’s hospitalization.
Ryder explained, “The Secretary and Deputy Secretary’s staff were notified that the transfer had occurred through regular email notification procedures.” So, staffs were notified but not the principals. That means no one who could make a decision about national security knew the secretary of defense was in the hospital and not carrying out his duties, as it turned out, for four days.
Courtney Kube, NBC national security correspondent, asked questions about who had accompanied Austin to the hospital. “I would think he’d have a communications person with him, too, right?” Ryder responded, “I don’t have an answer to that.” Kube followed up, “I would think they would – there would be some process, that they would have notified someone immediately. I don’t know who that would be, the NCMM (National Military Command Center) or something?” Exactly. However, the press secretary hesitated: “I don’t have that level of detail.”
Notify the National Military Command Center
Asking whether the NMCC was aware is not some obscure level of detail. Whether it’s a nuclear attack or the secretary being admitted to the hospital, the NMCC would know how to proceed. Now, a nuclear attack might be self-evident for the NMCC, but regarding Austin’s situation, someone would be expected to tell the command center – but apparently not.
Toward the end of Ryder’s prepared remarks, he did what every good staff officer does when confronted with uncomfortable truths. He attempted to deflect reporters’ attention from Austin’s poor judgment and the Pentagon staff’s failure to notify the nation’s leadership, pointing out, “(T)he Department will be taking steps to improve our notification procedures.” So now the problem is bad procedures and not a failure to understand the procedures already in place.
The White House is all in on diverting blame. “The White House is launching a review of Cabinet protocols for delegating authority in the wake of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s secret hospitalization,” Fox News reported. You mean after 226 years as a country, the United States does not have a Cabinet secretary absence reporting procedure? See the two-page White House Chief of Staff memorandum explaining what any competent administrative staffer would have the common sense to do.
Don’t Blame the Process
Failure to notify the appropriate leadership when the secretary cannot fulfill the office’s duties has not been an issue for past defense secretaries. If those on Austin’s immediate staff were puzzled about next steps, the senior military assistant could have consulted his Director of Administration and Management Mike Donley, a seasoned and knowledgeable direct report to the secretary. It’s not that hard to figure out.
Why didn’t the Pentagon just come clean in the beginning? It’s not like 70-year-olds don’t get prostate cancer; certainly it does not rise the level of state secret information. Reports from Walter Reed indicate Austin’s cancer was caught early and he has an excellent prognosis. Once again, it’s not the act but the attempt to cover it up that becomes the problem. The details of Austin’s hospital stay did not come easily. “Under pressure from the administration and members of Congress, including from his own party, the Pentagon on Tuesday (Jan. 9) finally released details on the nature of Austin’s medical condition and procedures,” Nancy A. Youssef reported for The Wall Street Journal.
There is a lesson in this experience for the Pentagon leadership. Unless the information is classified, tell the American people what you know. Being transparent will improve confidence in the Defense Department and its leadership. It’s also critical that people in Pentagon leadership positions know how the building works. If not, well, you see what happens.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.