Top House Democrats, including Pelosi, express concerns over Pentagon's lack of transparency about Sec. Austin's hospitalization

 January 13, 2024

Controversy erupted this past week over the belated revelation last Friday that Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin had been hospitalized and incapacitated since New Year's Day -- important information that was not disclosed promptly to the general public, Congress, or even President Joe Biden and his White House and National Security Council.

The Pentagon's lack of transparency sparked sharp criticism from Republicans and the media but also from a few prominent Democrats as well, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), according to Fox News.

The Democratic leader acknowledged in an interview this week that she was "concerned" about the apparent disclosure failures and said that the situation should have been "handled much better."

"Chain of command" was not "respected"

In an interview this week with MSNBC host Jen Psaki, asked about the situation with Sec. Austin, former Speaker Pelosi said, "My first concern is about his health, and what the nature of that is and why he would not disclose it."

"But the chain of command is something that really does have to be respected. And the President of the United States is the commander in chief. He should have known," she continued. "But again, we don’t know the particulars of this. But I do think that this could’ve been handled much better."

Asked if she retained confidence in Austin's ability to continue leading the Defense Department, Pelosi demurred and said, "But that’s really something that’s -- him and the President of the United States, because nobody knows better than the secretary of defense and the commander in chief about the chain of command."

Other Democrats express concerns over lack of timely disclosure

Former Speaker Pelosi was not alone among prominent House Democrats in voicing rather mild criticism of the apparent lack of transparency from the Pentagon and Sec. Austin about his health issues and secret hospitalization that went undisclosed from even the White House and senior Defense officials for several days, according to CNN.

Assistant House Democratic Leader Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) first defended Austin as a "great Defense secretary" and told CNN's Jake Tapper, "Now we have some laws in this country, HIPAA laws, that keep us out of people’s medical businesses, and I do believe this man has as much right to be protected by those laws, and be subjected to those laws, as everybody else."

"He does have a duty to keep the public informed," the congressman added. "And I don’t know whether it was him, or someone inside the military establishment that decided to do it this way, but I am sure he will do a little better going forward as he said he would."

Also weighing in this week was Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who said in a joint statement with GOP Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), "We are concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary’s condition was handled."

"Several questions remain unanswered including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the Secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the Secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the President and Congress," they added.

Delayed disclosure of hospitalization

The Pentagon first announced on Jan. 5 that Sec. Austin had been hospitalized since Jan. 1, and Austin himself released a statement on Jan. 6 in which he said, " I also understand the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better. But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure."

Since then, the Pentagon has released daily updates about Austin's health status and, on Tuesday, finally revealed the cause of the secretary's secretive absence. Austin had undergone surgery to treat prostate cancer in late December and had suffered complications from that surgery that required hospitalization and additional treatment.

In the latest Pentagon update on Saturday, spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said that Austin "remains hospitalized" in "good condition" at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, that he was in contact with senior staffers and working, and added, "We do not have a specific date for Secretary Austin's release from the hospital at this time but will continue to provide daily updates until then."

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