Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s mysterious absence, explained

Austin looking down toward the ground with uniformed soldiers in the background.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon on December 4, 2023. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Why it’s a big deal that the president didn’t know his defense secretary was in the hospital for three days.

Even the most powerful people in the world are still humans with bodies and families. They sometimes need to take time off, whether for medical reasons, personal matters, or just to recharge. But the people who rely on them still need to know where they are.

That’s the issue at hand with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s days-long disappearance last week. The secretary was hospitalized and placed in intensive care on January 1, but the public wasn’t informed until three days later — and, even more surprisingly, neither was Austin’s ultimate boss, President Joe Biden.

That’s a shockingly long time given Austin’s job as head of the $800 billion Defense Department, one whose command of the US military is second only to the president and who is sixth in line for presidential succession.

“The secretary of defense plays a crucial role in the chain of command,” Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and former White House National Security Council (NSC) staffer who studies civil-military relations, told Vox. “He’s the civilian in control of national security 24/7. That’s an important function in a republic. It’s important in the way that even some of the other Cabinet secretaries are not.”

Austin, who the Pentagon finally said on Tuesday was admitted to the ICU for complications from prostate surgery treatment, is now back on the job, and for the moment the White House says it intends to keep him there. (Though NSC spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday that the White House also did not know Austin had prostate cancer until this morning, a situation he termed “not optimal.”) But the press and members of Congress are continuing to demand answers, with some calling for Austin’s resignation.

As it faces these questions, the administration is already stretched trying to manage American involvement in two raging wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and is facing a tough reelection battle in the coming year. A centerpiece of Biden’s argument for reelection has been to contrast the professionalism and dependability of his team, particularly on national security, with the chaos of Donald Trump’s term in office.

But it’s hard not to view the lack of communication around Austin’s absence as anything but chaotic, and this apparent national security own-goal could not have come at a worse time for the White House and the Pentagon.

The silent general

A retired four-star general, Austin has been secretary of defense since the beginning of Biden’s term. He had a distinguished military career that included combat commands in Iraq and Afghanistan and a three-year stint as commander of Central Command, overseeing US military activity in the Middle East and South Asia.

Austin’s appointment made history, as he is the first Black secretary of defense. (Notably, while Black Americans are overrepresented in the military as a whole, they have been underrepresented in the senior ranks.) But it was also controversial because he had retired from active military service only five years earlier. Federal law prohibits military officers from becoming secretary of defense until seven years after they retire, unless granted a special waiver by Congress.

Austin was only the third secretary to be granted such a waiver but was the second in less than five years after Trump’s first secretary of defense, former Marine Gen. James Mattis. This led to some criticism that Biden was following in the former president’s footsteps, further eroding a norm intended to maintain civilian control over the military.

But Austin had had a close personal relationship with Biden. The president’s late son, Beau, served on Austin’s staff in Iraq. Still, while Austin frequently represents US policy on national security crises to both the media and foreign governments, he’s also known as a very private person — he was reportedly nicknamed “the silent general” in military circles — who shares little about his personal life with either friends or colleagues. And this desire for privacy is what may have gotten him into trouble.

The SecDef vanishes

The imbroglio began on December 22 when Austin underwent an elective medical procedure — later revealed to be treatment for prostate cancer — which required him to stay overnight at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. On New Year’s Day, several hours after he took part in a conversation with Biden and other top national security officials about the Middle East, Austin began experiencing severe pain and was taken back to Walter Reed.

The following day, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest-ranking officer in the military, was told that Austin had been hospitalized; also informed were Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, and the Pentagon press secretary, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder. Magsamen, who was sick with the flu, did not inform the White House.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico, was told to assume some secretary-level duties, but was not informed that Austin was hospitalized. (According to the Pentagon, it is not unusual for a deputy secretary to take over a secretary’s duties for a short period without knowing exactly why.)

Both the White House and Hicks finally learned of Austin’s hospitalization on January 4. According to Ryder, Magsamen had been “unable to make notifications before then” because she was ill. Ryder briefed the press at the Pentagon that day, but did not disclose anything about Austin’s condition. The Pentagon finally informed Congress and the press on January 5 but did not publicize the details of Austin’s medical condition until January 9.

Austin is still in the hospital, though no longer in the ICU, but has resumed his full duties according to the Pentagon. A statement from Walter Reed described his prognosis as “excellent.”

Why Austin’s absence matters

The most straightforward explanation for what happened is simple confusion resulting from the fact that Austin’s chief of staff was ill and his deputy was on vacation at the same time he was hospitalized.

There does not appear to have been any direct impact on US national security or the military’s ability to carry out operations. In fact, the US carried out a rare airstrike in Baghdad, targeting an Iranian-linked militia leader, shortly before the White House learned of Austin’s condition on January 4. According to the Pentagon, the strike had been approved before his hospitalization.

In fact, things seemed to carry on as normal to such an extent that it raises a few questions about just how important Austin is to the administration. “The fact that Biden hadn’t been in touch with his secretary of defense for four days during a period of round-the-clock military operations and crisis … suggests that Austin is far from essential,” wrote Slate’s Fred Kaplan.

As for the question of what would have happened if a more serious crisis had erupted last week, on paper at least, the chain of command was never broken. Military commanders or the White House could have reached Hicks, who had secure communications equipment with her on vacation and already knew she had to assume some of Austin’s duties, even if she didn’t know exactly why she was filling in.

Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), have suggested that Austin is a “key link” in the nuclear chain of command, implying that the president would not be able to order the use of nuclear weapons with him. But this is not correct. For better or for worse, the president has the sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons, and if they chose to do so, they would communicate those orders directly to military officers at the Pentagon using codes unique to them. A 2022 Congressional Research Service report noted that the “Secretary of Defense would possibly contribute to the process by confirming that the order came from the President, but this role could also be filled by an officer in the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon.”

But all of this assumes that backup systems and redundancies are working perfectly, which they clearly weren’t for the three days when the president didn’t know his secretary of defense was in the hospital.

Duke’s Feaver also brought up a hypothetical scenario in which the president wanted to call off a strike, such as the January 4 one in Baghdad. In a situation like that, they would likely inform their national security adviser — Jake Sullivan, in Biden’s case — who would communicate with the defense secretary: “So, it’s New Year’s Day, the president changes his mind and decides to cancel it. Jake tried to call the Defense Secretary and says, ‘Wait, he’s in intensive care? Why didn’t anyone tell me?’ It wouldn’t prevent the president from executing the order, but there would have been a hiccup at a moment of very high tension.”

This is not an outlandish scenario. In 2019, Trump reportedly told the Pentagon to call off airstrikes on Iran with planes already in the air.

Kori Schake, a former White House and Defense Department staffer now at the American Enterprise Institute, said another concerning scenario from the point of view of civilian control of the military is one in which the president could not reach the defense secretary, their deputy, or their chief of staff (all of whom were to varying degrees of out of pocket last week). In that case, the president would likely contact the chairman of the Joint Chiefs directly to implement their orders. But the chairman, unlike the defense secretary, is a uniformed member of the military.

“That removes the judgment of the civilian leadership of the department, which is really important,” Schake told Vox. “It’s the secretary of defense’s job to make sure that military plans, budgeting, and operations are consistent with the president’s political priorities. That’s why they’re a member of the Cabinet. That’s why Congress approves them.”

Will Austin stay on the job?

Back on the job, Austin now says he takes “full responsibility” for the decisions made last week, while the Pentagon has ordered a 30-day review of what went wrong.

“The DOD is doing the classic move of stretching the timeline out and hoping this will die down,” said Schake. “They have some explaining to do. Not just how not to do this again, but why were specific decisions made?”

The White House has said Austin will stay on the job and has the president’s full support. One official told Politico on Monday that the president would not accept the secretary’s resignation if he offered it. However, in the aftermath of the affair, the White House is ordering a review of Cabinet protocols for delegating authority, according to a memo obtained by ABC News.

Jason Dempsey, a military veteran and former White House staffer who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the affair was “certainly a mistake” and should be a lesson for staffing practices going forward. He said Austin’s command background — the very thing that made his appointment somewhat controversial — also made it unlikely his reputation in the military ranks would be damaged.

“He has a wellspring of reputation, and he’s going to get some grace from his military counterparts,” Dempsey said. “If this was some congressman who was walking into the building for the first time and did this, it would be different.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail are unlikely to be so forgiving. Cotton has already called for Austin’s resignation. Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana says he’s planning to introduce articles of impeachment. Trump, who went through two confirmed defense secretaries and four acting ones during his four years in office, has called for Austin to be fired for “dereliction of duty.”

“He will have to go before Congress and explain himself,” Feaver predicted. “And if the explanation is what I think it is, which is just that he was a very private person and he was embarrassed to be talking about [the issue], he’s going to have to get over that and talk about it in a highly publicized hearing where there are going to be people trying to score points off of him.”

Dempsey said that the entire situation was somewhat ironic given the stress that Austin’s military training would have put on passing along all relevant information to his superiors: “The first thing they teach you in the military is that bad news doesn’t get better with age.”

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