Confusion, lack of policy led to Austin’s hospitalization secret

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The Defense Department found no wrongdoing in the events that led to the secrecy surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization last month, according to details of a review ordered by his chief of staff into how days passed without the president or Congress being notified that the Pentagon boss was incapacitated.

A mixture of concerns about protecting Austin’s privacy — and a lack of written policy for emergency hospitalizations — caused staff to balk when it came to informing the White House or Congress of the secretary’s absence, while at the same time not informing the deputy defense secretary of why she was taking over authorities, according to an executive summary of the largely classified review released Monday.

“As this unclassified summary highlights, the secretary’s team was faced with an unprecedented situation and so they executed a transfer of authority in the same way that they had previously done,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told reporters during a briefing.

Austin’s emergency hospitalization for a urinary tract infection that developed following a late December procedure to treat his prostate cancer wasn’t unprecedented, however.

Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates was rushed to the hospital in 2008 when he broke his shoulder slipping on his icy front steps. The Pentagon confirmed the following day that he’d had an accident.

What was unprecedented was that following Austin’s ambulance ride on Jan. 1, it took his staff until Jan. 4 to notify the White House and Congress of his absence, and until the following day to put out a public statement.

Austin has taken the blame for the situation overall, saying that he did not want to “burden” the president with his early December cancer diagnosis, he told reporters during a Feb. 13 briefing.

“What I’ve learned from this experience, taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect,” he said. “The American people have a right to know when their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties, even temporarily.”

Austin said at the time that he did not direct his staff to withhold any information from the chain of command, adding that he doesn’t believe that he has created a culture of secrecy that would have conditioned his staff to hide information on his behalf.

The review found that concerns over “medical privacy laws” precluded staff from sharing what they knew or asking for more information.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, is the main law governing health information in the U.S., but it only dictates that health care workers and health insurance administrators, for example, not share patient medical records with unauthorized people.

Ryder acknowledged that there may have been some confusion about privacy laws. Austin’s chief of staff, on the other hand, learned of his hospitalization from a military aide, which was not a violation of any privacy laws.

Ryder did not answer a question from Military Times as to what changed between Jan. 2, when members of Austin’s staff were informed of his hospitalization and concerned about his privacy, and Jan. 4, when notifications began.

In his Feb. 13 briefing, Austin did not address why he didn’t request that a member of his staff notify the president that he wouldn’t be going into work on Jan. 2.

The review released Monday adds that it was not Austin’s decision to transfer authority to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Jan. 2, but that members of his staff made the call when he was moved into the intensive care unit and would not have access to secured communications to carry out his job.

“Look, I’m not gonna speak for why any individuals did or did not take certain specific actions. I think we can all agree, you know, it is not uncommon for a natural human response when it comes to things like things like medical care, to default to a privacy setting,” Ryder said. “But the secretary also made clear in that press briefing that he acknowledges we can do better, that we will do better.”

In that spirit, when Austin returned to Walter Reed on Feb. 11 to address a bladder issue stemming from his initial UTI, the Pentagon immediately notified the relevant authorities and made a public statement, keeping information flowing about the secretary’s condition and plans to return to work.

The review released Monday includes eight recommendations to improve the notification process when a defense secretary is incapacitated, including articulating to staff the expectations for information-sharing and writing down guidelines for how to handle such events. There will also be new protocols for determining when authorities should be transferred to a deputy defense secretary and how to notify authorities about it.

All recommendations have 90 days to be implemented, Austin wrote a memo signed Monday,

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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