OPINION | Austin’s avoidable scandal was caused by arrogance and mismanagement

For several excruciating days, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s staff gave the White House, Congress, and the public an incomplete or misleading explanation of his health. Now that the details of his hospitalization have been revealed, one big question remains: Why did he hide it in the first place?

The answer appears to be a combination of arrogance, terrible staff work, and genuine dysfunction at the top of the national security policy-making system.

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center released a statement Tuesday saying Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in “early December” and underwent “minimally invasive surgery” under general anesthesia on Dec. 22. revealed. He returned to Walter Reed Hospital on January 1st in severe pain due to an infection and remains hospitalized. Austin’s prognosis is “excellent” and he is expected to make a full recovery.

On Monday, Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, released a memo confirming that from Jan. 2 to Jan. 5, “certain authorities” of the defense secretary had been transferred to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks. Magsamen ordered a 30-day internal investigation. Identify relevant facts and circumstances during this period and consider notification procedures in the event that the Secretary of Defense is unable to perform his duties.

Has the case been resolved? It’s not that fast.

The problematic behavior of Austin and his senior staff goes far beyond failing to tell Hicks why he was taking on some of his duties and failing to tell the White House that he was in intensive care. . Austin also did not reveal his diagnosis for several weeks. And the way this issue was handled constituted the downfall of the U.S. national security bureaucracy.

“This is a system failure. That’s the only way to say it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) told me.

Several other senators told me Tuesday they don’t understand why Austin hid his health issues and vowed to seek a full public accounting.

“The president may not want to talk about it publicly, but the public has a right to know,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

Austin was partially disabled while U.S. forces conducted lethal operations against Iraqi militias and fended off attacks in Syria and the Red Sea. His aide was on vacation in Puerto Rico. The president, the national security adviser, and the secretary of state didn’t know where they were. The leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees were also kept in secret.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told me that the defense secretary’s actions were particularly disappointing given that Austin has advocated for eliminating stigma around health issues in the military. said.

“This is truly a national security concern,” Blumenthal said. “While I understand his concerns for his privacy, there is nothing shameful about needing surgery. The sequence of events that led us to this place is inexplicable and unacceptable. .”

There are several theories about what all this reveals about the Biden administration. Some say this is a sign that Biden’s officials don’t respect him. Some say it’s a sign of a government in turmoil. Some say it shows Austin is so unimportant to national security decision-making that he could disappear for days and no one would notice.

There is truth to the assertion that national security policymaking is no longer working as designed. In theory, the Secretary of Defense and other Cabinet members are so important that their input is always needed. However, in this administration, the White House and the National Security Council are in control, and government agencies are subordinate.

“It’s shocking that no one noticed that the Secretary of Defense was away from the arena when we were literally at war in the Middle East,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. told me.

But this episode also reveals something about Austin. As a general, he never liked speaking in Congress or the media. Even now that he’s a cabinet minister, he doesn’t seem to feel obligated to provide basic transparency in government. That’s arrogant. And the fact that Austin’s senior staff thought they could keep such a grave secret from their lieutenants and their boss, the president, shows that they had little to do with reality, and that they were on their own island. It shows that they are acting on. That’s incompetence.

Many Republicans are calling for Austin to resign. The White House has so far supported him, but there have been calls for accountability from his senior staff. Lawmakers are skeptical that Magsamen was unable to notify the White House about Austin’s hospitalization until January 4 because he had the flu. Austin’s press secretary, Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, has also come under fire for misleading the media during the first days of Austin’s hospitalization. He has since apologized.

Will Austin resign? Probably not. But his credibility and confidence in his leadership took a major hit, as did the credibility of his chief of staff and press secretary. They undermined public trust in the US government and created a completely avoidable scandal for Biden at the worst possible time.

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