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Pentagon comes under fire after releasing report of Austin’s hospitalization: ‘We still have questions’

The Pentagon faced criticism Monday after the release of an internal review of its failure to notify the president about Secretary Austin's hospitalization last month.

The Pentagon came under a barrage of criticism Monday following the release of an internal review that investigated its failure last month to notify the president about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's hospitalization for complications from prostate cancer surgery.

The review, carried out by Austin's subordinates, largely absolves anyone of wrongdoing for the secrecy surrounding his hospitalization, which included several days in the intensive care unit. The review states flatly that there was "no indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate."

At a press conference Monday, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder fielded multiple questions from reporters who pressed for answers on perceived gaps in the review.  

Ryder said Secretary Austin’s staff decided to transfer authority to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on January 2 as he was in the ICU. He said the secretary was never unconscious, though it remained unclear why his staff made that call. 

Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico, did not learn of Austin’s hospitalization until three days later, after he was transported to an intensive care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

Asked by Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin why Hicks was not told it would be a good idea to return to D.C., Ryder said Austin’s staff was faced with an "unprecedented situation." 

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"And so they executed a transfer of authority in the same way that they had previously done," Ryder said, adding that national HIPAA laws, which protect individuals’ medical records and other individually identifiable health information, prevented medical providers from sharing candid information with the secretary's staff about Austin’s condition. 

"[Austin’s staff] were hesitant to pry or share information that was in a state of flux," Ryder said, insisting that there were never gaps in command and control. 

Several reporters complained that the internal review did not adequately provide new information that wasn’t already known and that some questions remain unanswered.

"We still have questions about the timeline here. And with all due respect, this answers none of them," one reporter said, adding that the "glaring question that remains is where was the vulnerability, here?" 

The 30-day examination of the lapse in leadership says procedures must be improved and information shared better when the defense secretary must transfer decision-making authorities to the deputy.

Austin is set to appear before House lawmakers on Thursday for a hearing on the matter and is expected to face sharp criticism. The Defense Department's inspector general is also conducting a review, which has not yet been completed.

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Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December and went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for surgery on Dec. 22. On Jan. 1, he was taken back to Walter Reed by ambulance after experiencing significant pain and was moved to the intensive care unit the next day.

Although he transferred decision-making authorities to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks during his initial surgery and then again when he was in intensive care, he did not tell her why and he did not inform the White House.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged that public affairs and defense aides were told on Jan. 2, that Austin had been hospitalized but did not make it public and did not tell the military service leaders or the National Security Council until Jan. 4. Only then did President Joe Biden find out. It took four more days before the reason for his hospitalization was disclosed.

The 30-day review was finished and submitted to Austin on Feb. 8, but only parts of it were publicly released. The Pentagon has argued that portions of the report are classified.

Austin, in a press briefing after he returned to work, told reporters that he never told his staff to keep his surgery and hospitalization secret from the White House, but acknowledged he should have handled it differently and he apologized for keeping Biden and others in the dark for weeks. He denied there was a culture of secrecy in his office, and also said that staff members may have perceived that "they're doing things in my best interest."

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