By JOE BUCCINO | REAL CLEAR WIRE
The news that the U.S. Department of Defense failed to inform the American public that its Secretary of Defense was hospitalized in Walter Reed for four days represents a stunning breach of transparency standards. It is also a measure of reputational damage from which Secretary Lloyd Austin will never recover. He must be forced to resign.
The original admission – dropped at the end of a Friday to minimize exposure – that the Secretary received multi-day treatment for an unidentified elective surgery introduced immediate and intense scrutiny from national security reporters. It drew a formal admonishment from the Pentagon press.
The issue may have died there, but the subterfuge further grew the story. Additional reporting revealed some critical details not released by the Pentagon in its Friday announcement: Austin was in in-patient intensive care, generally reserved for those in immediate danger. Meanwhile, his Deputy Secretary of Defense, Kathleen Hicks, was vacationing in Puerto Rico.
Many questions now must be answered: Who was adjudicating the Pentagon’s support for the war in Gaza? Who was coordinating with Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant on behalf of the U.S. military? Who approved the Jan. 4 strike into Baghdad that killed a militia leader believed responsible for attacks on American troops? Who coordinated that strike and its aftermath with defense officials in the Middle East? These are the kinds of actions that require leadership from inside the Pentagon. Why did the Deputy Secretary of Defense remain on vacation with the Secretary incapacitated?
Further, still – what is the health status of our Secretary of Defense? Only a severe condition would introduce multi-day hospitalization amidst multiple crises in the Middle East, a log-jammed war in Ukraine, and new Chinese threats against Taiwan. The statement Austin released late Saturday in an attempt to tamp down the controversy reveals he is “on the mend” – whatever that means – and looks forward to “returning to the Pentagon soon.” How long is he out? This seems much more serious than elective surgery – the line the Pentagon press officers are sticking with. What is his medical status at age 70?
More questions still: What did the Pentagon press officers know, and when did they know it? Surely, they are aware of the protocol for publicly announcing medical procedures for cabinet officials. Who was in on the deception? The Secretary of Defense travels with an entire operations center around him at all times: note-takers, communications experts, and intelligence analysts. These people all report to defense officials, who report to other defense officials. It’s hard to believe the Pentagon’s press office was unaware that the Big Boss was in the hospital. In fact, hiding the Secretary of Defense during a tumultuous work week for the American military surely involved the collusion of multiple senior officials.
The Pentagon could have avoided all these questions and all of this controversy with a press statement upon Austin’s entering the hospital and updates throughout. U.S. Air Force Major General Pat Ryder held two press briefings during Austin’s hospital stay – he could have provided updates on his boss’ condition from behind the podium. More importantly, he should have told us who was running the Pentagon. It’s unclear how the nation is to believe anything coming out of the Pentagon press office in the coming months.
The American Secretary of Defense walks the earth with the most essential information any of us can have. He renders decisions on behalf of this country that kill many people in other countries. Lloyd Austin represents American power to much of the world. He runs an enterprise that costs American taxpayers north of $840 billion and employs more than three million workers. We get to know where our Secretary of Defense is at all times. We get to know when he’s on vacation. We get to know when he’s in the hospital.
Lloyd Austin cannot recover from this breach of trust. In fact, he cannot be trusted any longer. If he wants to keep his hospital visits private, he should be allowed to do so – as a private citizen.
Joe Buccino is a retired U.S. Army Colonel public affairs officer and the former communications director of U.S. Central Command. He also served as the spokesman for Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan. This column first appeared at Real Clear Defense and is reprinted with permission.