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Defense chief Austin asked to testify before Congress on hospital secrecy

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been called to testify before Congress to explain why he kept his recent hospitalization a secret, including from the White House.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) sent a letter to Austin on Thursday, saying his “direct testimony” was required to understand the “decisions made to withhold information from the President, Congress, and the American people.”

“Congress must understand what happened and who made decisions to prevent the disclosure of the whereabouts of a cabinet secretary,” Rogers wrote. The hearing is set to take place on Feb. 14.

Austin, 70, was released from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda on Monday, the Pentagon said, after a two-week stay that included a stint in intensive care. His medical crisis was kept secret for four days.

The situation has garnered significant interest and sparked controversy, after it was revealed Austin underwent two hospitalizations and surgery after a prostate cancer diagnosis but had not notified the White House or key Pentagon officials. It also triggered a broader debate over the proper balance between privacy and disclosure for top government officials, and whether they are allowed to keep serious medical problems to themselves.

“This is a time of immense global instability,” Rogers said in the letter. “Maintaining the most ready and lethal force possible requires that everyone in the national security community be able to rely upon the Secretary of Defense’s availability and transparency. Regrettably, you have not exhibited these attributes throughout this most recent string of events.”

In early December, following routine medical screenings, Austin learned that he had prostate cancer. The disease, the second-most common form of cancer for men, had been caught in its early stages and was considered highly treatable, the Pentagon said.

Austin underwent surgery on Dec. 22 to treat the prostate cancer, without informing President Biden and other senior administration officials. On Jan. 1, the secretary was in intense pain and suffering from nausea and severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain when he was transported to Walter Reed by ambulance from his Northern Virginia home, the Pentagon said later, and was readmitted with complications related to the earlier surgery.

According to audio of a 911 call on Jan 1., an aide to Austin requested the ambulance arrive without lights or sirens “to remain a little subtle” when approaching his home.

A handful of officials close to Austin learned about his hospitalization Jan. 2, but the information was withheld from the White House until Jan. 4, and from Congress and the public until Jan. 5.

Pentagon officials have struggled to explain the lack of transparency, including with Biden.

Austin, a retired four-star Army general, is known to be intensely private, which may have influenced how he handled his medical affairs, his colleagues have previously suggested to The Post.

“We fully recognize that there are going to be many questions, in terms of notification timelines,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Defense Department spokesman, said last week. He added that notification to the White House was delayed in part because Kelly Magsamen, Austin’s chief of staff, was also out sick with the flu.

The White House has said Biden retains confidence in Austin’s work as defense secretary but acknowledged frustration with the secrecy.

“It’s not good, it’s certainly not good,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters last week. “Which is why, again, we want to learn from this. We want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

White House officials have directed a review of how senior government officials delegate authority to others when needed. Austin’s chief of staff, Magsamen, has ordered a 30-day internal review of the matter and the Defense Department’s inspector general has launched an investigation.

Inspector General Robert Storch said his staff would begin its work this month and that while the inquiry will be focused on the Office of the Secretary of Defense, its scope could broaden.

In a statement following his release from the hospital, Austin thanked medical staff and said he would “continue to recuperate and perform my duties from home,” adding that he was “eager to fully recover and return as quickly as possible to the Pentagon,” without giving a specific time frame.

I want to thank the doctors and nursing staff at Walter Reed for their professionalism and superb support during my stay. Now, as I continue to recuperate and perform my duties from home, I’m eager to fully recover and return as quickly as possible to the Pentagon.…

— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) January 15, 2024

Missy Ryan, Matt Viser, Mariana Alfaro and Kelsey Ables contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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