‘Nuclear command is a priority’: Defence chief’s ICU trip left US exposed to attack

The deepening mystery surrounding the medical crisis that engulfed US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin last week now threatens to erode the four-star general’s authority, and damage President Joe Biden’s stumbling re-election campaign.

Veteran observers of events in Washington are nonplussed by 70-year-old Austin’s conduct, which breaches every protocol, guideline and tradition governing daily activities in the city’s corridors of power and the transparency of top officials paid from the public purse.

As one of the most senior officials in the US, sitting just below the President in the chain of command, the defence secretary must always be available to respond at a moment’s notice in the event of a national security threat such as an incoming nuclear attack.

But for four days, the man who leads 1.4 million active duty military personnel failed to tell Biden – his Commander-in-Chief – that he had been admitted to intensive care after experiencing “complications” from surgery. It fell to the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to break the news to the President last Thursday, moments after he belatedly learned of his colleague’s condition.

Over the weekend it became apparent that no one in the upper echelons of America’s command structure was offered any timely information about the Secretary’s whereabouts, his condition or his prognosis.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is welcomed by Qatar's Minister of Defense Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, during his visit to Al Udeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar, December 19, 2023. Sarah Williams/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
Austin with the Qatari minister of defence, Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, during his visit to Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar last month (Photo: Sarah Williams/US Air Force/Reuters)

Neither the UK nor any of America’s other military allies were informed of Austin’s absence from the helm, despite the enormity of developments in Ukraine and the Middle East. Department of Defence officials actively misled Austin’s Pentagon colleagues by claiming that he was “working from home” over the New Year period when, in fact, he was neither at his residence nor – at least for some of last week – capable of performing his full range of duties.

The Pentagon is in a circle-the-wagons mode. The drip-feed of information emerging claims that Austin underwent an “elective” medical procedure at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland on 22 December and returned home the following day. On New Year’s Day, he was rushed back to Walter Reed after experiencing “severe pain” resulting from the still-unexplained procedure.

Austin’s condition was serious enough to warrant multiple days in intensive care where he was kept in isolation. We learned on Sunday that the Deputy Secretary of Defence, Kathleen Hicks, was not told that her boss was in hospital even when her holiday in Puerto Rico was interrupted by urgent directives from Washington to assume some of his duties.

FILE - The Pentagon is seen on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023, in Washington. The U.S. military on Thursday. Dec. 28, opened a new chapter in how it investigates and prosecutes cases of sexual assault and other major crimes, putting independent lawyers in charge of those decisions and sidelining commanders after years of pressure from Congress. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
The defence secretary’s reputation has been damaged inside the Pentagon, after senior officials were left in the dark (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Austin was still at Walter Reed on Sunday afternoon, “recovering well and in good spirits” according to the Pentagon spokesman, Patrick Ryder. Those spirits, however, may have been tested by a telephone call on Saturday from Biden. The White House claims the phone call was “cordial” and that the President conveyed his wishes for Austin’s speedy recovery, but within hours the defence secretary issued a statement expressing limited regret over his extraordinary actions.

“I recognise I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed”, said the notoriously private Austin, who had made no effort to ensure the public was appropriately informed.

“I commit to doing better”, he pledged in a grudging phrase that appeared to offer the lowest bar possible for his future conduct.

His conduct has given Republicans ammunition to launch a fresh salvo against the White House just as Biden takes his re-election campaign into higher gear. The former vice president Mike Pence led the charge, telling CNN on Sunday that Austin’s behaviour constituted “a dereliction of duty” and was “totally unacceptable”.

Citing the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East that require around-the-clock focus by defence chiefs, Pence said “the Secretary and the administration frankly need to step forward and give the American people the facts”.

On Capitol Hill, leaders from both parties are also demanding answers. Congressmen Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Service Committee joined Republican chairman Mike Rogers in a statement, describing themselves as “concerned” that “several questions remain unanswered” and warned that Austin “must provide additional details” of his medical condition “as soon as possible”.

The Republican senator for Arkansas Tom Cotton said the reports showed a “shocking breakdown”, while the Congressman for Nebraska Don Bacon, a former Air Force general and Armed Services Committee member, said: “It’s not right the DoD [Department of Defence] leadership failed to notify the White House. Nuclear command and control is priority number one, and the Secdef [Secretary of Defence] is a key authority in this chain of command. The confusion here undermines deterrence.”

The White House says Biden has no plans to seek Austin’s resignation, and retains “complete trust and confidence” in his top military official. But the Defence Secretary’s reputation and authority have been badly damaged inside the Pentagon itself. Senior officials are struggling to understand why they were left in the dark, including the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force who were only officially informed last Friday that Austin was indisposed.

Whatever Austin’s reasons for keeping details of his condition secret, he may be hard-pressed to maintain his current posture. At his next appearance before Congress, whenever it comes, committee members are sure to demand answers. His senior colleagues can also expect detailed enquiries about the timeline of last week’s events.

Defenders of Austin’s conduct are thin on the ground in Washington. Questions about the affair trailed the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, all the way to Qatar. During a news conference, he called Austin “an extraordinary leader”. But when asked whether he would similarly fail to notify the President about any future medical problems of his own, Blinken demurred, dismissing the inquiries as mere “hypotheticals”.