Pentagon Inspector General to Investigate Defense Secretary's Failure to Notify Key Officials of Hospitalization

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listens
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listens as Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Richard Marles speaks during a meeting at the Pentagon, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Defense Department inspector general will investigate the events surrounding the hospitalization of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the subsequent lack of notification of Congress and the White House, the office announced Thursday.

The watchdog probe will "examine the roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities and actions related to the Secretary of Defense's hospitalization in December 2023 and January 2024," Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the top Pentagon spokesman, told reporters at a public briefing.

It will be the second investigation by the Pentagon into what officials said were a series of issues and missteps -- including Austin's chief of staff coming down with the flu and department officials not feeling empowered to share the information -- that led to many key officials in Washington, D.C., not learning of the hospitalization until Jan. 5.

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On Monday, Austin's office began its own 30-day review of the lack of official and public notification. But that review was ordered by Kelly Magsamen, Austin's chief of staff and one of the key people who is implicated in the chain of events that led to the White House, Congress and the National Security Council being left in the dark.

Earlier that day, reporters asked Ryder whether that internal investigation was "kind of checking your own homework?"

The DoD inspector general is an independent and objective agency, and its findings will be separate from those of the Office of the Secretary of Defense staff review.

Ryder, who also knew of Austin's hospitalization for days but did little to inquire further or take steps to inform the press, assured reporters Monday that "no one has more interest in making sure that we can learn from this and ensure that we're doing what we need to do than the folks that are carrying out those responsibilities."

The Pentagon disclosed Tuesday that Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December and "underwent a minimally invasive surgical procedure called a prostatectomy" on Dec. 22.

On Jan. 1, the 70-year-old secretary developed severe abdominal, hip and leg pain, which led to another hospitalization that evening and was ultimately determined to be the result of a urinary tract infection and abdominal fluid that was impairing his small intestines, according to a statement from his doctors.

On Thursday, Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who had previously been critical that only an internal investigation was announced, praised the IG for opening an investigation. Every Republican on the committee sent a letter to Austin this week demanding answers to several questions, including clarification on the timeline of who knew what when.

"It is encouraging to me that we have that opportunity with the DoD inspector general to get to the facts here," Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member on the committee, said at a group news conference. "I don't know if there would have been such an investigation if we hadn't raised these questions over and over."

Wicker previously accused the Pentagon of violating the law requiring congressional notification of an executive branch vacancy, but on Thursday he said "it really doesn't matter whether the statute was violated or not" since the larger issue is "an absence of common sense."

Wicker and the two committee members who appeared with him, GOP Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Rick Scott of Florida, also continued to decline to join other Republicans' calls for Austin to resign.

"Our goal here is to find out what happened, not just so there's accountability, but what went wrong?" Fischer said. "Who's making decisions? How's the communication being handled? That's what we need to find out. That's what we need to find out so this doesn't take place again."

Since the story of the hospitalization became public, Austin has said he takes "full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure." However, it's not clear whether that will lead to more transparency from the military's civilian leader.

When asked by reporters if Austin will commit to conducting a press conference on the issue when he is released from the hospital, Ryder demurred.

Ryder said that Austin is "committed to doing better" regarding transparency but he promised only to relay the request for a press conference.

The Pentagon has not said one way or the other whether the investigation initiated by Austin's chief of staff will be made public.

In the meantime, Monday's order by Magsamen noted that they are making some immediate changes to help address the shortfalls the incident revealed. Mainly, Austin's office has made the authority transfer notifications more visible by broadening the number of people receiving those notifications and including a reason for the transfer.

One of the key issues revealed by Austin's hospitalization was that the authority transfer messages were too regular and generic, which meant that his deputy, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, was primed to receive such a transfer without knowing why and not thinking to ask more questions.

Ryder told reporters Thursday that Austin remains hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland and is in good condition.

He said that, according to his doctors, "he continues to recover well, and is focused on executing his duties as the secretary of defense" but there was no update on when Austin will be released from the hospital.

Related: Austin's Secret Hospitalization Prompts Congressional Inquiry, Calls for Hearings

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