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'You have embarrassed us': Lloyd Austin apologizes to Congress for illness response

WASHINGTON − Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his first congressional hearing since his health crisis related to prostate cancer, faced blistering criticism Thursday for failing to notify lawmakers, the White House and the American public about his hospitalization last month.

“Our adversaries should fear us, and you have embarrassed us,” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., scolded Austin at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

An ambulance sped Austin, 70, to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on New Year's Day, but he attempted to conceal that he had been admitted to the hospital's critical care unit. Austin's three-day delay in informing his boss, President Joe Biden, and other authorities has drawn bipartisan criticism and internal reviews at the Pentagon.

Austin reiterated to Congress on Thursday that he has taken responsibility for poor communication and has apologized for not being fully transparent about his hospitalization. Lawmakers, though, said more accountability was needed.

''We did not handle this right," Austin said. "I did not handle this right."

Truck drivers and bartenders have to tell their bosses when they miss work, Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., told Austin.

"This is about judgment, and poor judgment,” Waltz said.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies in front of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington on Feb. 29, 2024. Secretary Austin was called before the committee to explain the circumstances surrounding the failure to communicate his absence to the President during his recent hospitalization.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies in front of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington on Feb. 29, 2024. Secretary Austin was called before the committee to explain the circumstances surrounding the failure to communicate his absence to the President during his recent hospitalization.

'Either the president is that aloof, or you are irrelevant'

Austin deflected a barrage of questions about whether Biden is out of the loop on key national security issues. "The president is not aloof," he said.But Austin's critics said that was not enough.

"Who will be held responsible for this?" Banks demanded. "Are you surprised he did not call for your resignation?"

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said the fact that it took Austin days to tell the White House reflects badly on both of them. "Either the president is that aloof, or you are irrelevant," he said."Which one is it?"

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who chairs the Armed Services Committee, blasted Austin for failing to notify the White House of his hospitalization while wars raged in the Middle East and U.S. troops faced attacks from Iranian-backed militias. "It’s totally unacceptable," Rogers said.

The chain of command, starting with Biden, "doesn’t work when the commander-in-chief doesn’t know who to call," Rogers said.

More: 'We're trying to remain a little subtle': Lloyd Austin security detail requested no sirens or lights on his ambulance

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies in front of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington on Feb. 29, 2024. Secretary Austin was called before the committee to explain the circumstances surrounding the failure to communicate his absence to the President during his recent hospitalization.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies in front of the House Armed Services Committee in Washington on Feb. 29, 2024. Secretary Austin was called before the committee to explain the circumstances surrounding the failure to communicate his absence to the President during his recent hospitalization.

'We did have a breakdown'

Austin has acknowledged significant lapses in communication, and he repeated those when facing his critics in Congress.

"We did have a breakdown in notifications during my January stay at Walter Reed," Austin said. "That is, sharing my location and why I was there. And back in December, I should have promptly informed the president, my team, Congress and the American people about my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment."

Austin stressed that he or Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, to whom he transferred his authority in January, maintained control of military, which includes its 2 million troops and nuclear forces.

"There was never any lapse in authorities or in command and control," Austin said.

A Pentagon report on the matter, issued Monday, did not recommend that anybody be disciplined, finding that there was no "ill intent" or obfuscation in delaying notification of Austin's incapacitation. It did endorse formal procedures, adopted last month by the Pentagon, to notify the White House, Congress and senior military officials immediately when the defense secretary transfers his or her authority.

The review did not satisfy Rogers.

“Unsurprisingly, the review of Sec Austin’s actions, conducted by his own subordinates & subject to his approval, HELD NO ONE ACCOUNTABLE," he wrote this week on X, formerly Twitter. "This is why we are conducting our own investigation. We will seek answers at our hearing w/ Sec Austin on Thursday.”

Austin and his staff sought to downplay his illness and hospitalization from its early days. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December and had surgery Dec. 22. A staffer asked emergency medical personnel not to use sirens and lights when the ambulance picked him up at his home, according to a recording of the 911 call.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lloyd Austin's Congress hearing apology: 'I did not handle this right'