Secrecy over defense secretary’s hospitalization has White House defensive

Associated Press | 1/11/2024, 6 p.m.
President Biden’s administration pledged from day one to restore truth and transparency to the federal government — but now it’s ...
Secretary Austin

WASHINGTON - President Biden’s administration pledged from day one to restore truth and transparency to the federal government — but now it’s facing a maelstrom of criticism and credibility questions after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization was kept secret for days, even from the White House.

The controversy has prompted a government-wide review of what protocols are in place to prevent such failures and the Pentagon is scrutinizing its own procedures following the extraordinary lapse, which left even Secretary Austin’s top deputies unaware of his condition for days.

Senior congressional Republicans are investigating whether Secretary Austin ignored legal requirements to inform Congress, and Biden administration officials are privately fuming about Secretary Austin’s lack of disclosure, believing it to be an unforced error that undercuts the president’s message of restoring competency through his administration.

The prolonged focus on a senior official’s medical secrecy also is shedding an unwelcome spotlight on President Biden’s own health, which already was under scrutiny as the oldest president in history seeks another term and faces regular questions and concerns from voters about his age. Combined, the questions over transparency and health have put the White House on the defensive for days as the election year opens and have given ammunition to President Biden’s political opponents who question whether his Democratic administration is living up to its pledges of competency.

The Pentagon disclosed Tuesday afternoon, after days of silence on Secretary Austin’s medical diagnosis, that the secretary has prostate cancer. Secretary Austin, 70, was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Dec. 22 and underwent surgery to treat the disease, but developed a urinary tract infection a week later and was admitted into intensive care. He remained hospitalized Wednesday.

Secretary Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer during a routine screening in early December, but the White House insisted that no one there, including President Biden, knew about the diagnosis until Tuesday.

“I think we all recognize — and I think the Pentagon has been very, very honest with themselves — about the challenge to credibility by what has transpired here, and by how hard it was for them to be fully transparent with the American people,”

John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Tuesday. “We all recognize that this didn’t unfold the way it should have — on so many levels.”

There is no government-wide policy in President Biden’s administration on how absences of Cabinet officials should be handled, according to people familiar with the matter, although there is a general expectation that the White House should be made aware of such circumstances. The people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss government practices.

While there is no statutory requirement for public officials to disclose their medical histories, it has become common practice for presidential and vice presidential candidates and incumbents to do so. Many choose to share more about their health than a private citizen would.

Other top figures, though, have opted to remain cagey about their health, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after recent incidents in which he froze up, and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who delayed revealing her recurrence of pancreatic cancer or the seriousness of her condition before her death weeks ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Disclosures to the public about a Cabinet official’s absence have varied between federal agencies. For instance, the Justice Department in 2022 announced that Attorney General Merrick Garland would undergo surgery to remove enlarged prostate tissue a week in advance of his procedure.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg cleared his parental leave with the White House after he and his husband adopted twins in 2021, but the leave was not disclosed publicly until he had returned to work.

Multiple current and former officials said White Houses generally aim to keep closer tabs on the whereabouts of the secretaries of state and defense due to their prominent positions in the line of presidential succession, and particularly in the case of the Pentagon.

Cedric Leighton, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, noted that the chain of command for the U.S. military runs from the president through his defense secretary to the combatant commanders, who then execute orders that could include command and control of any potential use of nuclear weapons.

He said it was “imperative” that the president, top administration and military officials, select members of Congress and even key allied counterparts be notified of even a temporary absence.

“It’s highly unusual for any Cabinet secretary not to notify the president, the White House chief of staff, or the NSC of any absence, especially a medical one,” he added.