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Pentagon keeps Austin's hospitalization quiet for days from White House, Congress

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remains at Walter Reed hospital today. That's a week after he was admitted for complications from what we are told was a recent elective medical procedure.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What's unusual here is not that Austin is in the hospital - that happens - but that Austin kept his hospitalization quiet from the White House and members of Congress for days.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us now to tell us more about this strange situation. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it is strange. I'm sorry. I know that most people, you know, don't feel a need to tell all their personal business when they go into the hospital, but he is a member of the cabinet. And we know he's still in the hospital. Do we know how he's doing?

BOWMAN: Well, we really don't know his condition, the initial medical procedure or the resulting complications. He was in the intensive care unit, Michel, so clearly it was serious, but I'm told by a source, not life-threatening. The Pentagon put out a statement yesterday afternoon saying the secretary is, quote, "recovering well and in good spirits," and he resumed his duties Friday night. But no word on a release date.

MARTIN: Can you walk us through this whole story about who knew what when? I'm talking about officials in Washington here.

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon put out a brief release Friday afternoon, the 5th, saying on New Year's night, January 1, Austin was admitted to the hospital. We were later told his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was informed the next day that she was the acting secretary. Now, Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico and was told a couple of days later on Thursday that Austin was, in fact, in the hospital. She offered to head home but was told, listen, Austin would resume duties on Friday.

Also on Thursday, the White House was finally informed Austin was in the hospital. And some members of Congress were only told - get this - a half-hour before the press release was issued on Friday afternoon. Now, Austin himself has released a statement saying, quote, "I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed."

MARTIN: OK, the public, but what about his boss, the president?

BOWMAN: Well, right. You would think that Biden's principal military adviser in this time of war in the Middle East and possible continued military action by U.S. forces against militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen would have picked up the phone and told officials, at least the president, because there have been ongoing meetings about all these issues. You know, did anyone notice he was not around? Now, Biden spoke with Austin over the weekend, and we're told he has confidence in the secretary. But members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, still want answers.

The top leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Mike Rogers and Democrat Adam Smith, put out a statement yesterday. They said several questions remain unanswered. What was the medical procedure and resulting complications? What is the secretary's current health status, how and when a delegation of the secretary's responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the president and Congress?

MARTIN: So, Tom, I'm going to mention here, you've covered the Pentagon for a long time. Have you ever seen anything like this?

BOWMAN: Absolutely - no, never anything like this. But Austin, who's 70 years old, he's always been very quiet, not very talkative, rarely seen in public or the press room. And he was the same way when he was a four-star general, when he was in charge of operations in the Middle East. He's not a force or clearly a powerbroker like his predecessors Donald Rumsfeld or Robert Gates or Leon Panetta. He's, frankly, just kind of a silent partner.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.