White House Orders Cabinet Heads to Disclose When They Can’t Perform Duties After Secret Hospitalization

White House Orders Cabinet Heads to Disclose When They Can’t Perform Duties After Secret Hospitalization

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The military has still not specified what procedure Mr. Austin underwent.

The White House on Jan. 9 ordered cabinet members to disclose to the White House when they cannot perform their duties, after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin kept his condition secret for days from top officials in President Joe Biden’s administration.

Cabinet heads must inform the White House chief of staff if they have to delegate authority, or might have to delegate authority, White House chief of staff Jeffrey Zients said in a memorandum reviewed by The Epoch Times.

The memo does not mention the hospitalization of Mr. Austin, 70, who was in intensive care for days before President Biden and the White House were notified.

A spokesman for the Pentagon has claimed the delay stemmed from Mr. Austin’s chief of staff being ill with influenza.

“Agencies should ensure that delegations are issued when a Cabinet Member is traveling to areas with limited or no access to communication, undergoing hospitalization or a medical procedure requiring general anesthesia, or otherwise in a circumstance when he or she may be unreachable,” Mr. Zients wrote.

The directive also says that agencies must note when authority is delegated and that the person who assumes the authority must quickly communicate with White House staff members.

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Mr. Austin went to the hospital in December 2023 for an elective procedure without telling President Biden, according to the Pentagon. He was discharged home the next day but returned to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 1 after experiencing “severe pain,” a U.S. Department of Defense spokesperson has said.

Mr. Austin’s authority was transferred to his deputy, Kethleen Hicks, on Jan. 2.

Neither Ms. Hicks nor the White House were informed of Mr. Austin’s health condition until Jan. 4, according to the Pentagon, and members of Congress have also said they were not notified.

Mr. Austin has said he was responsible for the notification delay and that he would be more transparent in the future. “The department will be taking steps to improve our notification procedures,” Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Monday.

Mr. Austin’s chief of staff also ordered several officials on Jan. 8 to review what transpired. She said the review “will help to ensure clarity and transparency when a determination has been made that certain authorities have been transferred and that proper and timely notification has been made to the president and White House and, as appropriate, the United States Congress and the American public.”

The Pentagon Press Association has decried the delay in informing the public about the hospitalization. The Pentagon did not disclose the hospitalization publicly until Jan. 5.

“At a time when there are growing threats to the U.S. military service members in the Middle East and the U.S. is playing key national security roles in the wars in Israel and Ukraine, it is particularly critical for the American public to be informed about the health status and decision-making ability of its top defense leader,” the association said in a statement.

Mr. Ryder has defended the delay, saying, “It was an evolving situation, in which we had to consider a number of factors, including medical and personal privacy issues.”

He added on Monday: “I offer my apologies and my pledge to learn from this experience. I will do everything I can to meet the standard you expect from us.”

Only President Biden is higher in the military’s chain of command than Mr. Austin.

The military has still not specified what procedure Mr. Austin underwent.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes remarks at a virtual Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) meeting, at the Pentagon in Washington, on Nov. 22, 2023. (Cliff Owen/AP Photo)
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes remarks at a virtual Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) meeting, at the Pentagon in Washington, on Nov. 22, 2023. (Cliff Owen/AP Photo)

Officials have said that he resumed his duties on Jan. 5 and while he’s still hospitalized, he’s “recovering well and in good spirits.”

“He is no longer in the intensive care unit but is recovering in a more private area of the hospital. He continues to experience discomfort but his prognosis is good,” Mr. Ryder said.

Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the Pentagon.

“I remain concerned that vital chain of command and notification procedures were not followed while the secretary was under medical care,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “He is taking responsibility for the situation but this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the department.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that he was “quickly losing faith in Secretary Austin’s ability to lead DoD in this turbulent time.” He said the committee needs to hear from Mr. Austin and other military officials about “this lack of transparency.”

Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) said the secrecy around the hospitalization helped convince him to file for Mr. Austin’s impeachment, which could lead to Mr. Austin being removed as defense secretary.

Mr. Austin has not been fired and the White House says President Biden would not accept his resignation were it offered.

Emel Akan contributed to this report.

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