Inspector general to review how the Pentagon handled Austin’s hospitalization

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon inspector general said in a memo Thursday that it plans to begin a review of how the department handled Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization due to a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

“The objective of the review is to examine the roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities, and actions related to the Secretary of Defense’s hospitalization in December 2023 – January 2024, and assess whether the DoD’s policies and procedures are sufficient to ensure timely and appropriate notifications and the effective transition of authorities as may be warranted due to health-based or other unavailability of senior leadership,” the memo from Robert Storch said.

Austin has come under fire for how he and his staff handled communicating his cancer diagnosis and hospitalization over the last month.

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said earlier this week that lawyers at the Defense Department were reviewing whether any laws were broken in the delay to notify top government leaders In a statement Wednesday, Ryder said that Austin remained hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and was “in good condition.”

“He’s in contact with his senior staff and has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor DOD’s day-to-day operations worldwide,” Ryder said. “The Secretary also took an operational update today from the U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Erik Kurilla and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr.”

Ryder said that there was still no date for him to be discharged from the hospital.

Austin, 70, was diagnosed in early December with prostate cancer and underwent a prostatectomy on Dec. 22, during which he was “under general anesthesia,” Walter Reed said in a statement Tuesday. He went home the next day but was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 1 after experiencing severe pain. Doctors discovered he had a urinary tract infection and a collection of fluids impairing the function of his small intestines. Walter Reed said that Austin was in the intensive care unit for several days. 

On Jan. 2, a day after Austin was admitted, Ryder and his deputy were informed about his hospitalization. That same day, some of the secretary’s duties were transferred to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico. Hicks wasn’t told, however, that Austin was in the hospital until two days later, on Jan. 4, a senior defense official said.

It was also on Jan. 4 that President Joe Biden and some other top White House officials learned of Austin’s hospitalization, three days after he was admitted. 

The department’s first public statement about Austin’s hospitalization was on Jan. 5.

Walter Reed didn’t disclose why Austin was hospitalized on Jan. 1 until this week. On Tuesday, officials told the public about Austin’s cancer diagnosis and it was only that morning that the White House, including Biden, learned about the diagnosis, as well.

Members of Congress have criticized Austin for taking days to notify top defense officials, the White House and lawmakers. On Wednesday, Rep. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania became the first Democrat in Congress to call on Austin to resign from his Cabinet post.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed, D-R.I., told NBC News on Wednesday that the committee wouldn’t rule out holding a hearing on the issue but is “trying to accumulate all the information that we think is appropriate to examine what happened.”

Austin has been hospitalized during a tense period in the Middle East, as Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in Gaza, as the United States launched a rare and controversial strike against a senior Iranian-backed militia member in Baghdad, and as the U.S. and its allies contend with attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels against commercial ships in the Red Sea.