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Austin grilled by lawmakers over lack of transparency surrounding hospitalization

By Haley Britzky and Michael Conte, CNN

(CNN) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin faced tough questions from members of Congress on Thursday in a hearing focused on his days-long delay notifying both lawmakers and President Joe Biden about his whereabouts after he was hospitalized following treatment for prostate cancer.

Austin, who is still recovering from complications after the prostate cancer procedure he had in December, testified before the House Armed Services Committee as lawmakers demanded more information about his hospitalization. While members on both sides of the aisle expressed concern over his delay in notifying relevant officials of his hospitalization, the sharpest criticism largely fell along party lines.

The hearing was requested by Republican chairman Mike Rogers, who said in January that Austin’s “unwillingness to provide candid and complete answers” regarding his hospitalization required a full committee hearing.

“Congress must understand what happened and who made decisions to prevent the disclosure of the whereabouts of a cabinet secretary,” Rogers said in a January 18 letter to Austin.

Austin emphasized repeatedly Thursday that there was no gap in authorities and “never a break in command and control” of the Pentagon.

“We transferred authorities in a timely fashion,” he said. “What we didn’t do well was a notification of senior leaders.”

But in opening remarks on Thursday, Rogers said it was “totally unacceptable” that the president did not know Austin’s whereabouts.

“Wars were raging in Ukraine and Israel, our ships were under fire in the Red Sea, and our bases were bracing for attack in Syria and Iraq,” Roger said. “But the Commander in Chief did not know that his Secretary of Defense was out of action.”

Republican Jim Banks read aloud quotes from what he called leading Russian and Chinese propaganda outlets as evidence Austin “embarrassed” the US to its adversaries.

Ranking Member Adam Smith pushed back on Banks’ characterization, warning his fellow lawmakers not to “use this to the advantage of our adversaries to use it as a partisan attack.”

“The United States, as all of this was going on as has been pointed out, was carrying out strikes against our adversary in order to protect our force,” Smith said. “We were doing everything we needed to do to meet the national security needs of this country, and if members of this committee incorrectly imply otherwise, they are merely giving aid and comfort to those adversaries that they claim to care about confronting.”

Austin acknowledged there was a “breakdown in notifications,” but said that he “never intended to keep my hospitalization from the White House or from anybody else.”

“[B]ack in December, I should have promptly informed the President, my team, Congress, and the American people about my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment,” Austin said. “Again: We did not handle this right. And I did not handle this right … I take full responsibility.”

Austin’s January 1 hospitalization prompted a flurry of questions and reviews of Pentagon processes, including one that is ongoing by the Pentagon Inspector General. While Austin was taken to the hospital in an ambulance on January 1 — and admitted to critical care on January 2 — it wasn’t until January 4 that his deputy Kathleen Hicks and the White House were told he was in the hospital. Hicks was transferred some of his authorities on January 2 but did not know why, which the Pentagon has said was not unusual.

The next day, January 5, Congress and the public were informed.

Austin, an intensely private person, has since said that he “never directed anyone to keep my January hospitalization from the White House” and that the news of his cancer “shook” him.

“Frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private. I don’t think it’s news that I’m a pretty private guy, I never like burdening others with my problems,” Austin said during a Pentagon press conference earlier this month. “It’s just not my way. But I’ve learned from this experience, taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect. The American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties even temporarily.”

But a joint statement in January from Rogers and ranking member Adam Smith said they were “concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary’s condition was handled.”

“Transparency is vitally important,” the statement on January 7 said. “Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible.”

The hearing on Thursday also comes just days after the Pentagon released the results of an internal review of the situation, which found ultimately there was no attempts to “obfuscate” Austin’s condition.

The review was conducted by the director of the Office of Administration and Management, who Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said is a career official. It made multiple recommendations for how to improve communication and processes when it comes to Austin transferring authorities to his deputy in the future and notifying Congress, the White House and other relevant officials.

But the review said Austin’s staff “was hesitant to pry or share any information that they did learn” out of privacy concerns. Austin has previously denied the idea that he has “created a culture of secrecy,” and Ryder defended Austin’s staff on Monday, saying it was “dedicated public servants … doing what they thought was the right thing.”

In a preview of the hearing on Thursday, Rep. Rogers sharply criticized the Pentagon review in a statement on Monday, saying it “HELD NO ONE ACCOUNTABLE.”

Throughout the hearing, Austin said that he did not direct anyone on his staff to hide his hospitalization from the White House, and provided insight as to how little his staff knew from the moment he got his cancer diagnosis.

In a tense exchange with Republican Rep. Nancy Mace, Austin said he did not inform his staff of his diagnosis nor did he communicate that he had scheduled a surgery to treat his cancer. Austin also said he didn’t inform staff when he was getting the surgery, which occurred while he was on leave, nor when he went to the hospital on January 1.

Mace then asked Austin what happens to service members when they go AWOL, or absent without leave.

“Well I wouldn’t equate my going to the hospital and receiving treatment as going AWOL,” Austin said forcefully.

“Being incapacitated as a secretary here, yes, is going AWOL. So you don’t equate disappearing, being incapacitated, with being AWOL?” Mace said.

“I didn’t disappear,” Austin pushed back. “I was in a military medical facility in Washington, DC.”

In another tense exchange with Michigan Republican Lisa McClain, Austin provided conflicting information as to whose fault it was that Biden wasn’t informed of his whereabouts for days, appearing to both say that he expected his staff to inform the appropriate agencies but that it wasn’t his staff’s fault the notification didn’t occur.

“In terms of the hospitalization January 1 throughout, again, I was the patient. And so my expectation is that the organization inform the right agencies,” Austin said.

“So it really wasn’t your fault, it was the staff’s fault. So you inform the staff, the staff made an error not to inform the president? I’m just trying to connect the dots,” McClain responded.

“No,” Austin said, later adding that he did not have “access to any kind of communications” while he was in critical care.

“You didn’t have a phone? Nothing?” McClain said.

“No,” he responded.

Austin pointed to the review’s recommendations Thursday, saying the “new procedures” would “prevent any lapses in notification” going forward.

“I am confident that we will not experience the same issues in the future,” he said.

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