‘Unprecedented Situation’: Pentagon Spox Struggles To Explain Sec Def’s Behavior During Unknown Hospital Visit

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was “focused on getting healthcare” when his staff took the initiative to transfer his duties to the Pentagon’s second-in-command, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a briefing Monday.

The Pentagon released an unclassified summary of its review into the process of transferring command of the Pentagon on Monday after Austin’s undisclosed hospitalization sparked outrage and confusion over who was in charge, finding that Austin’s military assistants made the call to transfer authorities to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. No mention was made of Austin instructing his staff, led by the senior military assistant, to do so as he was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) on Jan. 2 and would no longer have access to secure communications.

“At that point, his staff, recognizing that he was going to be in a separate area, made the decision that because they would not be able to get to him with secure communications,” Ryder said.

Agreeing amongst themselves to contact Hicks’ staff and transfer Austin’s authorities to the deputy secretary, “they did what they typically do in these kinds of situations,” Ryder said. “Taking the initiative, recognizing that the secretary’s focused on getting healthcare right now, they did what they needed to do.”


The review highlighted that some improvements to the process of transferring authorities during an “unprecedented situation” were warranted, Ryder highlighted. He reiterated that at no point was command and control of the Pentagon out of authorized hands, as Hicks effectively became the acting secretary of defense.

While Hicks was alerted to the transfer and prepared to conduct official duties on his behalf, she did not learn Austin had been hospitalized until Jan. 5.

“It’s weird that it seems like it’s the staff who decide who’s secretary of defense at that moment,” a reporter said.

Ryder did not answer the question, referring reporters back to the unclassified review summary. Nonetheless, while Austin continues to take responsibility for his absence, he has not fired anyone and will not step down.

The review’s authors denied evidence of any attempt to cover up Austin’s illness or hospitalization and blaming privacy laws and Austin’s unclear medical situation for the confusion. Nevertheless, Biden did not learn of Austin’s hospitalization until several days later.

Austin “counted on the staff” to do their jobs, Ryder said, appearing to suggest Austin did not explicitly direct any staff member to tell the president Austin would be in the hospital and unable to work the following day.

Austin said at a rare briefing in February that he chose not to disclose his health condition to President Joe Biden because he did not want to burden the president with the news.

“The review and its recommendations is helping to inform internal policy deliberations regarding lessons learned and improvements to processes and procedures,” the review, which Ryder said was completed by Performance Improvement Officer & Director of Administration & Management Jennifer Walsh, stated.

Micaela Burrow on February 26, 2024

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