‘Reckless and irresponsible’: Pentagon officials reel from news Austin kept cancer diagnosis quiet

And some are incensed that Austin withheld his cancer diagnosis from President Joe Biden until Tuesday, weeks after Austin learned of his condition in an early December prostate screening.

One DOD official described being “disappointed” in the well-respected secretary’s decision-making.

“He made a deliberate decision to not share something so important at minimum with the POTUS. It was reckless and irresponsible,” the official said. “I don’t want to take away the human element of his diagnosis. … However, his judgment should be questioned on this one.”

But others are giving Austin the benefit of the doubt. A second DOD official said the defense secretary’s team “respects his privacy” and that “we all trust him.”

“I think folks think the notification of his hospitalization could have been smoother, but I don’t think anyone is angry he didn’t discuss his diagnosis,” the official said. “I don’t think it was intentional, so we clearly need better processes.”

A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

The news has prompted calls for investigations from Republicans
and even some Democrats
. Some in the GOP have called for Austin to quit or be fired. People close to Biden have
told POLITICO that Biden has no plans to sack his Pentagon chief and wouldn’t accept a resignation if offered

a steady stream of disclosures
, staffers are still asking “why” — why did Austin want to keep his condition under wraps, and why didn’t the secretary’s team know about it and inform others?

The secretary, who is recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and is back to performing his normal duties, kept two visits to the hospital from the White House. The first, on Dec. 22, was for surgery to treat the prostate cancer doctors found earlier in the month. That was followed by another stint, starting on New Year’s Day, after Austin suffered from nausea and body pains due to complications with the procedure. Biden, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks all learned that he had been hospitalized three days after the fact.

Pentagon officials revealed a stunning communications breakdown even though at least three senior officials learned of Austin’s situation on Jan. 2, the day after he arrived at the hospital. Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, was ill that week and unable to inform relevant administration officials. Pentagon public affairs chief Chris Meagher was running to and from doctors appointments with his pregnant wife, who gave birth to their first child on Friday. Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the department’s top spokesperson, chose not to push for more information —
a decision he told the press this week that he regretted

Some believe the failure to properly disclose the secretary’s hospitalization was not intentional, with the second official saying they believe it was “a screw up because of people being out of the office.”

But others aren’t buying that Magsamen’s illness prevented her from making the necessary notifications. A former DOD official said the chief of staff is known for answering emails “at all hours” regardless of her condition or where she is.

“Kelly is a force to be reckoned with,” said the first DOD official. “I highly doubt that her having the flu, unless she was unconscious, played a role.”

That staff work, or lack thereof, is now under a microscope. Magsamen on Monday ordered a 30-day review of the Pentagon’s policies for informing senior officials and the public about a secretary’s condition. Administration officials expect blame will be laid at the feet of Austin’s office and inner circle.

“Lloyd Austin is being ill-served by a political staff who are either accommodating his worst impulses regarding disclosures, and shutting out those beyond his loyal coterie,” said a senior administration official, “or he has staff who are advising him badly and forgetting they really work for the president in his administration.”

Either way, the fact that Magsamen is at the center of the issue and ordered the review struck this official as “grading one’s own homework.”

White House Chief of Staff Jeffrey Zients also
ordered a review by Cabinet secretaries
for how they delegate authority, coming after the surprise of Austin’s hospitalization and unexplained hand-off of powers to Hicks.

Austin has already taken responsibility for the lack of disclosures,
promising he would do better in the future
. But that pledge has already come into question. He spoke with Biden last Saturday, billed as a “cordial conversation” where the president offered his well wishes and expressed confidence in his ability to do the job. Austin, however, never brought up his cancer diagnosis during the conversation, the White House confirmed Tuesday.

Austin has
long inculcated a culture of secrecy
. Even as a four-star general, he steered clear of the media and has continued that trend as the Pentagon boss. His top reports have absorbed that ethos, said the first DOD official.

“They just don’t respect public affairs and they don’t respect the press,” the official said of Austin’s staff, noting that: “There’s a dynamic where often people don’t want to push back on him.”

A third DOD official who has spent ample time with Austin says he isn’t overly communicative. He can go whole briefings without saying a word, though he offers the occasional grunt to show he’s listening and following along.

But Austin’s introverted nature is no excuse for hiding his hospitalization from the president, said the former official.

“His desire for privacy doesn’t outweigh his duties to the president, department, or nation,” the person said. “This decision jeopardized national security and kept senior decision-makers — to include his own subordinate leaders alongside senior White House officials and the president — in the dark. It wasn’t fair to them or the people that rely on him.”