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‘I take full responsibility’: Defense Secretary Austin says he should have disclosed medical issues

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(WASHINGTON) — Facing angry lawmakers for the first time since his cancer diagnosis, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified Thursday that he takes “full responsibility” for keeping the White House in the dark when he underwent surgery and later when he was admitted to the intensive care unit after suffering complications.

“Again, we did not handle this right. And I did not handle this right. And as you know, I have apologized … including directly to the president. And I take full responsibility,” he said.

The acknowledgment, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, didn’t satisfy Republicans who said it’s still not clear who made the decision not to alert the White House.

“If any American worker did what you did, they would be fired,” said Rep. Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican. “And they aren’t the number two in the chain of command of the greatest and most lethal fighting force in the world.”

The hearing comes as a Pentagon review cleared Austin and his staff of wrongdoing, finding there was no “ill intent” of staff who failed to notify the White House but rather concerns about medical privacy and a lack of protocols for reporting such events.

For his part, Austin said he chose to take personal leave and not tell his staff upon being diagnosed with prostate cancer and scheduling a Dec. 22 surgery. He returned to work the next day after the surgery, which required general anesthesia. On Jan. 1, he developed complications and was rushed to the hospital, where he was admitted into the intensive care unit.

The White House didn’t learn of his condition until three days later.

Austin, who said he was “completely cured” of the cancer, testified that at each point when he was unable to perform his duties — including during surgery — that his deputy was officially in charge and had full access to communications with the White House — even if the White House didn’t know it.

Austin said he never directed his staff to keep his hospitalization quiet.

“I would emphasize that there was never a break command and control,” the secretary testified. “We transferred authorities in a timely fashion. What we didn’t do well was no notification of other senior leaders.”

But Republicans said it was ridiculous the top civilian at the Defense Department in the midst of global turmoil didn’t alert others that he was incapacitated. It also remains unclear when members of his staff learned he had been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.

“What disciplinary action would a junior service member face if he or she failed to properly notify their chain of command and failed to report for duty?” asked Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York.

Austin replied: “If a service member was in a hospital, I think the chain of command would be concerned about why they were in a hospital and (made) sure that they’re doing the right things to take care of them and their family.”
Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on Feb. 29, 2024, in Washington.

Rep. Jim Banks — one of Austin’s top critics — asked if the president is out to lunch or if the defense secretary is just irrelevant.

“Are you surprised president didn’t call for your resignation?” Banks asked.

Austin looked at the congressman and responded flatly: “The president has expressed full faith confidence in me.”

Banks then went on to question how the president could go three days without talking to his defense chief and not think much of it. Austin said that’s not unusual for defense secretaries.

“Either the president is that aloof or you are irrelevant,” Banks said. “Which one is it, Mr. Secretary, that … the president (could) go three days without knowing that his secretary of defense is not on the job?”

“It’s neither. The president is not aloof. And I … participate in” all discussions, Austin responded.

For their part, Democrats said it was a waste of time to harp on Austin’s mistake, which he had acknowledged and promised wouldn’t happen again, considering that Congress hasn’t been able to pass a budget in months. Also languishing in Congress is an aid package for Ukraine and Israel.

“It is the Congress of the United States and the leadership in this House that is failing to meet the national security needs of this nation,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-California.

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