These days, it’s not controversial to point out that on the Biden administration’s watch, the world has become far less stable and far more dangerous.
And Russia, despite failing to take Ukraine as rapidly as many predicted, has resorted to nuclear coercion, threatening to use nuclear weapons not only in Ukraine, but on many NATO countries—including the United States.
More recently, the United States failed to respond to the Hamas attacks in Israel—despite the fact that as many as 31 Americans were killed in the attack, and as many as 20 Americans were held hostage by Hamas.
Despite the Biden administration taking the Yemen-based, Iran-backed Houthis off the list of terrorist groups, Houthis’ missiles are now forcing global shipping to reroute around the Cape of Good Hope, just as in the days of Vasco de Gama.
And Tehran—despite ejecting International Atomic Energy Agency weapons inspectors from Iran and stockpiling 60% enriched uranium (just a technical step away from weapons-grade nuclear material)—continues to sponsor Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis, with nary a word of objection from the Biden administration.
And amid all those gathering threats, a truly bizarre, unprecedented story broke over the weekend about how, for roughly three days, no one was apparently in charge of the Pentagon.
If what follows is unclear and ambiguous, that’s because the entire story is unclear and ambiguous—and still unfolding.
The public learned on Saturday evening that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in intensive care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C.
Austin, 70, was admitted on Jan. 1 due to “intense pain” that followed a few days after a yet-to-be specified “elective procedure” he undertook on Dec. 22. As of Sunday, Austin remained at Walter Reed.
While Austin was supposedly teleworking the week of Jan. 1, according to his front office staff, he was in fact in intensive care—a fact that he shared with only the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. C.Q. Brown, and Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen.
No one else knew that Austin was in intensive care—not the president, not the National Security Council, not the military service chiefs, our military combatant commanders, nor service secretaries, nor the undersecretaries, let alone congressional leaders, until Thursday, three days after Austin was hospitalized.
One odd exception was the No. 2-ranking civilian in the Defense Department, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico with her family. Officials in the Pentagon informed Hicks on the afternoon of Jan. 2 that she was assuming “certain operational responsibilities that require constant secure communications capabilities.”
However, Hicks wasn’t informed that Austin was hospitalized until Jan. 4, the same day that the Pentagon informed the White House and the day that President Joe Biden learned that his secretary of defense had been incapable of performing his job functions for the better part of a week.
According to public statements, Biden spoke with Austin on the phone on Sunday, as the secretary remained in a hospital bed at Walter Reed and they are said to have had a cordial conversation.
Unfortunately, very little beyond that is known at this point. And the more we learn, the more questions we have.
What was the elective surgery that triggered all this? Austin, of course, is due some privacy, but given the number of crises unfolding in the world, why have elective surgery at all at this time?
Why did Austin not tell more people about his hospitalization than Brown and his chief of staff? He is a Cabinet secretary at a time of two wars, in Europe and the Mideast. Why did he not tell the National Security Council or the relevant combatant commanders?
If Austin was in intensive care on Jan. 1, why did the deputy secretary not assume the responsibilities of acting secretary until the afternoon of Jan. 2? And why was she not told he was in the hospital until Jan. 4?
Even if Austin was unable to call more than a couple of individuals that he was being put in intensive care on Jan. 1, why didn’t Brown inform the White House, the service secretaries and the senior military commanders?
Magsamen apparently was ill, which was why she didn’t inform the White House or Hicks before Jan. 4.
Everyone has been flat on their back sick for a few days. That’s a part of life.
Literally, all she or Brown would have to do is say to a member of the secretary’s Secret Service detail, “Place a secure call to the White House Situation Room and brief them on what’s going on.”
As noted, Hicks was in Puerto Rico on a no-doubt well-earned family vacation. But during this time of crisis, if the secretary of defense was hospitalized and no senior leaders were aware of his condition, why was she not summoned back to the Pentagon?
Finally, the defense secretary was in the hospital and was incommunicado during a period in which Iranian generals are being killed, Russians are shelling hospitals in Ukraine, Israel is conducting a war in Gaza, and global shipping is being rerouted out of the Red Sea … and no one in the White House or the National Security Council noticed?
More details will surely come to light. But this potential disaster is without precedent in the Defense Department. There has never been a week when the Pentagon’s chain of command broke down to such an extent that—for all we can discern—no one was in charge.
While we wish Austin a full and speedy recovery, the fact of the matter is that had anyone else in any other organization been so derelict in his or her responsibilities for the organization they lead, they would have been fired.
But as is the case with the failures in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Israel, it appears no one will be held accountable, and the American people are less safe for it.
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