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Austin Tells Congress There Was No Lapse in Authority, Command, Control During Hospital Stay

When the secretary of defense was admitted last month to the hospital for complications related to surgery in December, his authorities and responsibilities were temporarily transferred to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks. 

While the Defense Department didn't notify the White House and Congress about the transfer of authority, the U.S. military was never without leadership, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III today told members of Congress.

View of the U.S. Capitol dome, with waving American flag.
Capitol View
The Capitol, April 6, 2022.
Photo By: Marine Corps Cpl. Desmond Andrews
VIRIN: 220422-M-NZ953-1001

"There was never any lapse in authorities or in command and control," Austin said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "At all times, either I or the deputy secretary was in a position to conduct the duties of my office." 

Nevertheless, the secretary conceded, there was a breakdown in communications and in making appropriate notifications regarding the hospital visit in January, as well as his surgery in December. 

"Back in December, I should have promptly informed the president, my team and Congress, and the American people about my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment," Austin said. "We did not handle this right, and I did not handle it right. As you know, I have apologized, including directly to the president. And I take full responsibility." 

In early December, Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Later in the month, he underwent surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to treat that condition. In early January, he returned to Walter Reed for complications related to his surgery. 

During both the initial surgery and the second hospitalization at Walter Reed, the secretary's authorities and responsibility for the U.S. military were temporarily transferred to Hicks. But during neither of those hospitalizations was the White House or Congress notified of that transfer of authority. 

Now, Austin said, changes have been implemented at the top levels of DOD to ensure that, in the future, the president and Congress will know when and why authorities are transferred to someone other than the secretary. 

"The system must be postured better to make the appropriate notifications when authorities are transferred. And my staff must be ready to carry all of this out," Austin said. "That's why we immediately instituted changes to the way that the authorities can be temporarily transferred to my deputy and to the way that notifications get made. That's also why we conducted a 30-day review of the entire process." 

When it was learned that the president and Congress had not been informed of Austin's hospital visits, his chief of staff directed DOD's director of administration and management to conduct a 30-day review of the department's notification process for assumption of functions and duties of the secretary of defense. 

The classified report from that review was delivered to Congress, and an unclassified summary of that report was publicly released earlier this week. 

The review made eight recommendations regarding processes and procedural improvements that could be made within the department. Already, two of those recommendations have been implemented, and the secretary said the other six will be implemented soon. 

"We've made clear that we expect full information-sharing when the deputy or another designated official assumes the functions and duties as acting secretary," Austin said. 

Also implemented are written guidelines for clear information-sharing between the secretary's staff and the deputy secretary's staff so that the deputy secretary will be prepared and aware of the most important department issues in the event of an unforeseen transfer of authority. 

"We'll ensure that department officials in the order of succession are familiar with and supported for the relevant processes," Austin said. "And we're moving quickly to develop a mandatory reporting protocol for personnel who support me or the deputy secretary in situations that might affect our ability to perform our duties and functions." 

Austin also told lawmakers that if ever again the deputy secretary must temporarily assume the duties of his office, the White House — including the White House situation room and the White House chief of staff — would be immediately notified. He also said that the reason for the assumption of duties will be included in writing. 

"At no time during my treatment or recovery were there any gaps in authorities. And there were no risks to the department's command and control," Austin said. "We're moving swiftly to put some helpful new procedures in place to prevent any lapses in notification. And I am confident that we will not experience the same issues in the future."

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