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Defense secretary faces intense scrutiny over hospital stay that was not disclosed to key officials

By Avery Lotz, Casey Gannon and Jack Forrest, CNN

(CNN) — Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin faced sharp criticism on Sunday as details emerged about the degree to which senior officials, including President Joe BidenSecretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, were left in the dark about Austin’s multiday hospital stay.

Austin was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day due to complications from an elective surgery, but Biden was not informed that his civilian leader of the military was hospitalized until January 4, when national security adviser Jake Sullivan told him, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Austin remains hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center “but is recovering well and in good spirits,” Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement on Sunday. The Pentagon does not yet know when he will be released, Ryder said.

Austin was hospitalized following an elective medical procedure he had on December 22, while he was on leave, Ryder said. He returned home the following day, but on the evening of January 1 he “began experiencing severe pain” and was transported to Walter Reed via ambulance.

“He was placed in the hospital’s intensive care unit to ensure immediate access to due to his medical needs, but then remained in that location in part due to hospital space considerations and privacy,” Ryder said.

Hicks, who began assuming some of Austin’s responsibilities on January 2, did not know that it was because Austin was hospitalized, two defense officials told CNN. Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time and was not informed of Austin’s hospitalization until the afternoon of January 4, the officials said.

Blinken, in response to a reporter’s question at a news conference in Qatar on Sunday, said he “wasn’t aware” of Austin’s medical issue at the time.

“I talked to Lloyd last weekend before this incident and I know that he’s put out a statement addressing it,” Blinken said.

Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence, had harsh words for Austin.

“I believe the American people have the right to know about his medical condition, about the reasons for it,” Pence told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” characterizing Austin’s actions as a “dereliction of duty.”

Pence said that he wishes Austin well but said the lack of transparency was “totally unacceptable.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed similar sentiments in a statement released Saturday.

“I am glad to hear Secretary Austin is in improved condition and I wish him a speedy recovery. However, the fact remains that the Department of Defense deliberately withheld the Secretary of Defense’s medical condition for days. That is unacceptable,” the Mississippi Republican said.

Wicker said the lack of transparency regarding Austin’s hospitalization “erodes trust in the Biden Administration.”

He added, “Worryingly, we now have more questions than answers. Why was the notification process under 5 U.S.C. 3349 not followed and who made the determination not to follow it?”

5 U.S.C. 3349 is the US code for reporting vacancies in an office, which applies to the head of each executive agency.

Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma called the lack of disclosure over Austin’s hospitalization “shocking.”

“It’s pretty shocking on this because when you’re the secretary of defense, you need to make everyone aware that you’re actually going out of pocket,” Lankford said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Lankford went on to say the issue was not just that Austin was absent from his position, but that key branches of government weren’t aware.

“Apparently, the National Security Council didn’t know it, the White House didn’t know it, Congress didn’t know it. We’re at a time with a lot of turmoil internationally,” Lankford said.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, assistant Democratic leader in the House, told CNN’s Tapper that he disagreed with Pence that Austin’s actions were a “dereliction of duty,” calling Austin a “stand-up guy” and a “great defense secretary.”

“Now we have some laws in this country, HIPAA laws, that keep us out of people’s medical businesses, and I do believe this man has as much right to be protected by those laws, and be subjected to those laws, as everybody else. He does have a duty to keep the public informed,” the South Carolina Democrat said. “And I don’t know whether it was him, or someone inside the military establishment that decided to do it this way, but I am sure he will do a little better going forward as he said he would.”

Reps. Mike Rogers and Adam Smith, the chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, respectively, released a combined statement on Sunday saying they were “concerned” about how Austin’s hospitalization was handled and demanded more details on the decision-making process.

“We are concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary’s condition was handled. Several questions remain unanswered including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the Secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the Secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the President and Congress,” the statement said.

Rogers, a Republican, and Smith, a Democrat, added that the defense secretary “must provide additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible.”

Austin is a critical member of Biden’s cabinet and holds one of the most important roles in the national security establishment — particularly as the US military faces increased tensions in the Middle East.

During Austin’s hospitalization, the US carried out a strike in Baghdad against the commander of a pro-Iran militia. Austin gave authorization for the strike before he was hospitalized, said Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary.

The day he was hospitalized, Austin was among the top national security officials who participated in a call with the president to discuss, among other things, the escalating situation in the Red Sea, a source familiar with the call told CNN.

It was not clear whether the call — which was said to have taken place in the morning — was before or after Austin was hospitalized. But he sounded fine during the meeting, the source said at the time.

Austin has since reassumed his full duties. He spoke to Biden on Saturday evening, according to a White House official, who said the “president has complete confidence in Secretary Austin and is looking forward to him being back in the Pentagon.”

On Saturday evening, Austin thanked the “amazing” staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the care he has received and said he is “on the mend” and looking forward to returning to the Pentagon.

He acknowledged “media concerns about transparency” and said “I commit to doing better” in the statement, which totaled seven sentences. But he did not apologize for failing to notify the public or the press in a timely fashion. Senior administration and military officials who are hospitalized normally put out a statement within 24 hours.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Samantha Waldenberg, MJ LeeOren LiebermannHaley BritzkyNatasha Bertrand and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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