Internal Pentagon Review Finds No 'Ill Intent' Behind Austin Hospitalization Secrecy

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III conducts a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III conducts a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Feb. 1, 2024. (Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza/U.S. Navy photo)

A newly released internal Pentagon review into the secrecy surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's January hospitalization for complications from cancer surgery has essentially absolved anyone in the department from wrongdoing.

The 30-day review did not find "any indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate," according to a three-page unclassified summary released Monday. Rather, the review found that Austin's aides "were hesitant to pry or share any information that they did learn" about Austin's health because of concerns about his privacy, the summary said.

The initial secrecy about the early January hospitalization caused a political firestorm on Capitol Hill, with several Republicans and at least one House Democrat calling for Austin's resignation, and an election year political headache for the White House, which ordered new notification procedures for when Cabinet secretaries can't perform their duties after the Austin episode.

Read Next: 'Millions' of Veterans Exposed to Environmental Hazards Will Be Eligible for VA Health Care on March 5

"The secretary's staff focused on ensuring continuity of the mission following standing processes," the summary said. "Their efforts, while respecting the secretary's privacy, combined with the uncertainty of a medical situation and its bearing on how best to execute a [transfer of authority] in the absence of an established methodology for making such an unplanned decision, may have contributed to the lack of comprehensive information sharing about the situation."

The findings are unlikely to quell any of the political furor that resulted from the revelation that Austin was hospitalized for days in early January without key leaders, including President Joe Biden, knowing. The subsequent revelation that the hospitalization was due to complications from surgery to treat prostate cancer that he also kept secret from the president only added to the outrage from Congress.

The unclassified summary provides almost no new details about the timeline of who knew what when or specifically why certain aides who were aware of Austin's hospitalization, such as his chief of staff, failed to inform the White House of his whereabouts.

One new detail included in the summary is that it was Austin's military assistants, not Austin himself, who made the decision to transfer authorities to the deputy secretary as Austin was transferred to the critical care unit on Jan. 2.

A Monday afternoon briefing by Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder after the summary's release similarly failed to answer reporters' outstanding questions, with Ryder repeatedly only referring back to the summary.

Ryder also repeatedly stressed that Austin's staff faced an "unprecedented situation" in handling Austin's hospitalization and that the review underscored that there were "no gaps" in command and control of the military throughout the episode. Ryder, who was one of the few officials who was quickly informed of Austin's hospitalization, has previously acknowledged he "should have pushed for an earlier public acknowledgment" and vowed to "do better next time."

The summary's release comes days before Austin is scheduled to testify Thursday before the House Armed Services Committee about the failure to notify Congress and the White House of his hospitalization.

Congress received the full, classified version of the Pentagon's internal review, Ryder said. But lawmakers are signaling they are still unsatisfied and will grill Austin on Thursday.

"Unsurprisingly, the review of Sec Austin's actions, conducted by his own subordinates & subject to his approval, HELD NO ONE ACCOUNTABLE," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., posted on social media Monday. "This is why we are conducting our own investigation. We will seek answers at our hearing w/ Sec Austin on Thursday."

In addition to the House Armed Services Committee's ongoing investigation, the Defense Department inspector general is still investigating the episode.

In conjunction with the release of the unclassified summary, Austin also issued a memo Monday that directs Pentagon officials to implement recommendations for process changes that were included in the internal review.

Two of the recommendations, which deal with expectations for information sharing between Austin and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks and their offices, have already been implemented, according to the memo. The remaining six, which deal with improving internal guidance for transfers of authority and notification procedures, will be implemented within 90 days, the memo said.

"As I have repeatedly stated, we are a learning organization and we will continue to strengthen our process as we identify ways to improve upon our existing procedures," Austin wrote in the memo.

Related: Austin Receives Bladder Treatment at Walter Reed in Latest Hospitalization Since Cancer Diagnosis

Story Continues