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Pentagon probing botched disclosure of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s illness

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Lloyd Austin’s illness and medical procedure disclosure. What we know.
Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin was hospitalized with no notification to the White House. What we know on the rules behind medical information disclosure.

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s chief of staff on Monday ordered an investigation into the events surrounding his hospitalization, his transferring authority to his deputy and the delayed notification of senior Pentagon leaders, the White House and Congress, the Pentagon announced late Monday.

Kelly Magsamen, Austin’s chief of staff, ordered the 30-day review as the Pentagon has come under intense bi-partisan scrutiny for the secrecy surrounding Austin’s illness and delayed disclosures.

Information has been released in piecemeal fashion since late Friday when the Pentagon said in a brief statement that Austin had been hospitalized since Jan. 1. He remains at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center due to complications from a Dec. 22 elective procedure.

Magsamen had been home ill last week and was unaware that Austin had been hospitalized and in intensive care. The Pentagon has cited her illness as one reason that the White House wasn’t informed of Austin’s serious illness for three days.

However, several officials, including public affairs staff, were aware of Austin’s condition and did not pass along the information, a breach in the protocol when senior officials are incapacitated. Chris Meagher, the top civilian official for public affairs at the Pentagon, and Ryder, the press secretary, knew Tuesday, Jan. 2 that Austin was in the hospital, according to Ryder.

Magsamen also ordered that senior officials receive immediate notice of the transfer of authority from Austin to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, when he is hospitalized or out of range of communications. Hicks, who was vacationing, assumed some of Austin’s authorities Jan. 2 but wasn’t told until two days later that Austin was in intensive care, according to Ryder. Austin resumed work the from hospital and took back authority from Hicks Jan. 5.

The review will establish a timeline of events beginning Jan. 1 when Austin was taken by ambulance to Walter Reed.

“This review will help to ensure clarity and transparency when a determination has been made that certain authorities have been transferred,” Magsamen wrote. “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.”

Earlier Monday, Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, acknowledged that he knew of Austin’s hospitalization Jan. 2 and should have pushed to inform the public sooner.

“I offer my apologies and my pledge to learn from this experience,” Ryder said. “I will do everything I can to meet the standard you expect from us.”

Coincidentally, the Marine Corps late Monday announced that the commandant, Gen. Eric Smith, underwent successful open heart surgery Monday. The Marine Corps, unlike the Pentagon in Austin’s case, offered detail about Smith’s procedure and what led to it. The surgery repaired a bicuspid aortic valve in Smith’s heart, which caused his cardiac arrest on Oct. 28. He is in good condition and recovering at the hospital with his family, according to the Marine Corps.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, continues to refuse to describe the procedure that Austin underwent or what complications he suffered.

The Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee issued a joint statement calling for Austin to disclose details regarding his health the reason for the delay in notifying the White House and Congress.

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