‘He’s a cipher’: How Austin’s need for privacy just backfired

‘He’s a cipher’: How Austin’s need for privacy just backfired

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is one of the most reclusive Pentagon chiefs in recent memory. That’s creating a major problem for him now.

Austin’s failure to inform his most senior advisers, congressional leaders and even President Joe Biden of his hospitalization last week due to complications from a medical procedure has erupted into a controversy that’s left senior White House and Pentagon officials infuriated and befuddled. Some Republicans quickly called for investigations or even for Austin to be disciplined or fired.

Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. C.Q. Brown was not informed of Austin’s situation until Tuesday, the day after his hospitalization, a senior Defense Department official told POLITICO on Sunday. Even Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who assumed some of his duties while he was in the hospital, did not know his whereabouts until Thursday, a second senior DOD official said after CNN first reported the news.

“My sense is his desire to be private about a routine medical procedure kind of backfired when it didn’t go as planned,” said one senior U.S. official. “He’s so loyal and duty-bound. It’s all just very odd.”

Former and current U.S. officials who have worked with Austin say he is well-known as an introvert, shunning the cameras and keeping only a few close confidantes during his decades-long military career. As the four-star general overseeing U.S. Central Command during the Iraq drawdown, he rarely held press conferences. As defense secretary, in contrast to his predecessors, he takes only a handful of media on official travel. He has not done a press conference in the Pentagon since last July, although he regularly briefs the press during his travels.

This article is based on conversations with eight current U.S. officials and one former senior DOD official, most of whom were granted anonymity to discuss internal views.

For three days, not even the White House knew of Austin’s hospitalization. DOD officials notified top Pentagon civilians and military leaders only two hours before the public reveal on Friday evening. Congress was only informed 15 minutes before the announcement went out.

The first time Austin and Biden spoke since the secretary’s Monday hospitalization was Saturday evening, a senior administration official said, even as tensions in the Middle East have spiked and the war in Ukraine has intensified. The conversation followed reports, first from POLITICO, that the Pentagon boss waited three days to inform the White House that he was out of commission.

The Pentagon says the delay in notifying senior administration officials about Austin’s hospitalization was partly due to the fact his his chief of staff was also out with her own illness at the same time.

While Austin entered Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 1, DOD chief of staff Kelly Magsamen didn’t tell Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks — who has occasionally assumed the duties of her boss — or the White House of the secretary’s status until Jan. 4.

“The secretary’s chief of staff was unable to make notifications before then. She made those notifications on Thursday to the deputy secretary and national security adviser,” confirmed Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, DOD’s top spokesperson.

The revelation doesn’t explain the full story of the communication breakdown — or why the White House wasn’t notified. Gen. CQ Brown, the Joint Chiefs chair, was made aware of Austin’s status on Tuesday but apparently didn’t tell anyone. Austin also has other aides who could’ve informed relevant officials in Magsamen’s absence.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said a former senior DOD official, granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “This is effectively saying that without the chief of staff, Austin’s team can’t communicate with the rest of the administration.”

Biden wished Austin well for his recovery and looks forward to seeing the secretary back at work soon, said a senior administration official. Austin resumed his full duties on Friday and — despite criticism from administration officials, Republicans and the media — is not considering resigning from his post, Ryder said.

Since resuming his duties, Ryder said that Austin has received operational updates, provided guidance to his team and has full access to secure communications. Austin “is recovering well and in good spirits,” but Ryder provided no update on when Austin would be discharged.

“While we do not have a specific date for his release at this time, we will continue to provide updates on the Secretary’s status as they become available,” Ryder said.

Austin’s job appears safe — at least for the moment, but pressure is growing within the administration and on Capitol Hill for someone to lose their job.

“This is basic, sort of subordinate behavior, 101, and the secretary of defense was subordinate to the commander in chief and he failed,” said the second senior DOD official.

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, slammed the decision to keep Austin’s hospital stay secret, calling it a “shocking defiance of the law.” Former Vice President Mike Pence told CNN on Sunday that Austin’s actions were a “dereliction of duty.”

Concerns over Austin’s absence are bipartisan. Though most members of Biden’s party have either defended Austin or declined to comment on it, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee teamed up with his GOP counterpart to urge the Pentagon chief to provide more information.

In a joint statement Sunday, Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and ranking Democrat Adam Smith said they had concerns with delays in disclosing Austin’s hospitalization.

“Several questions remain unanswered including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the Secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the Secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the President and Congress,” the lawmakers said.

“Transparency is vitally important,” they added. “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.”

Another top Democrat and Biden ally, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, came to Austin’s defense. “I don’t think it is a dereliction of duty,” Clyburn said on CNN. “He is a stand-up guy. He’s a great defense secretary. He has been a tremendous military man in this country.”

Senior White House officials have enjoyed a close working relationship with Austin. After Biden ordered the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which military officials opposed, Austin told them not to complain in public settings and execute the order. And since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many senior administration aides credit Austin with convincing Western countries to deliver advanced weapons to Kyiv.

The White House, and Biden in particular, likes that Austin keeps his opinions to private meetings and doesn’t knife-fight in the media like some previous defense chiefs. Biden still seethes at past Pentagon bosses and military leaders who openly complained that then-President Barack Obama would not send enough troops to defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Biden still feels Obama’s surge of thousands of troops to the war on terrorism is partly due to the Pentagon leaking assessments and limiting the White House’s decision-making space.

Austin’s loyalty and close-lipped nature ensures that when a secret needs to be kept, “you’ve pretty much got it locked down,” said the senior DOD official. But it also can cause problems because the secretary may not be getting “the full picture spectrum of inputs” that he needs to provide the best advice to the president.

“He’s a cipher,” said the senior DOD official. “He lets in very, very few people, and that can be a good and bad thing.”

Austin’s pursuit of a low profile gelled with the Biden administration’s goal to turn the focus away from the Pentagon to the State Department and National Security Council — on diplomacy versus military action, said Barbara Starr, a former CNN Pentagon correspondent and now a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

“They weren’t interested in having a secretary of defense who would be grabbing the headlines. And so the situation right now is just so ironic because I think what Austin has really done is create a potential headline-grabbing problem for the White House,” Starr said.

“We don’t know how his medical situation unfolded and how and why they made those decisions over that period of three days,” she added. “The bottom line is regardless, what Lloyd Austin has done is what no Cabinet secretary wants to do, he has caused the president a political problem.”

Other Cabinet secretaries, when traveling with reporters, will frequently chat with those journalists on or off the record, which can offer reporters insight into their thinking and let those officials build relationships with those reporters.

Austin has long tried to stay out of the spotlight.

In 2014, the then-general demanded a public speaking engagement at the Atlantic Council think tank not be filmed by the press. Reporters were allowed in the room for the chat on the war against ISIS, but Austin expected the talk with CNN’s Jake Tapper to be a “scholarly discussion.” Austin’s staff told the Atlantic Council’s organizers the day before the session he would not appear if cameras were in the room, a change from an earlier agreement between the think tank and Central Command.

One U.S. official also pointed to a tense exchange with late Sen. John McCain in 2015 cemented Austin’s aversion to appearing in the headlines. McCain slammed Austin during a Senate Armed Services Committee for defending the Obama administration’s plan to defeat the Islamic State at a time when the militant group was expanding its reach.

“Basically, general, what you’re telling us is everything’s fine,” said McCain sarcastically, noting that he had never heard testimony “so divorced from reality.”

Others say Austin has always been private to a fault. Even during senior-level Pentagon meetings, Austin rarely goes off script.

“In every meeting, in everything, he says nothing,” said one former senior Defense Department official, who worked closely with Austin in multiple senior jobs. “In a broad variety of meetings, he keeps his own counsel and you’re never going to know what he’s thinking.”

Joe Gould contributed to this report.

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