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Deputy defense secretary not told of Lloyd Austin hospitalization when she assumed his duties, officials confirm

Defense secretary resumes duties in hospital
White House: Biden has "full confidence" in secretary of defense despite secret hospital visit 01:33

Washington — The deputy secretary of defense was not told that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been hospitalized when she assumed some of his duties on Tuesday, two defense officials confirmed to CBS News. 

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was informed of Austin's hospitalization on Thursday, the officials said. Hicks was in Puerto Rico and returned Saturday, according to one of the officials. 

Austin has been hospitalized since Jan. 1 due to complications following a minor elective medical procedure, the Pentagon said Friday in its first acknowledgment of the hospitalization. Austin spent time in the ICU, according to an administration official. 

The White House was also not aware of Austin's status until days after he was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, a Biden administration official told CBS News on Saturday. 

A defense official said Gen. C. Q. Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was informed that Austin was in the hospital on Jan. 2. Brown, who is the President's principal military adviser, did not inform the White House of Austin's condition.

Secretary Austin Hosts Honor Cordon Welcoming Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu To The Pentagon
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin walks down the steps of the Pentagon to greet Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu on Dec. 4, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia.  Win McNamee/Getty Images

One senior defense official learned of Austin's hospitalization via email from Austin's chief of staff Friday afternoon just a few hours before the Pentagon's public statement, the official told CBS News.  

The news that not even the Pentagon's second in command was aware of his status adds to growing questions about his condition and why it was kept a secret. 

CNN was first to report that Hicks was not aware of the hospitalization until days later. 

"On the afternoon of January 2, the Secretary of Defense transferred to the Deputy Secretary of Defense certain operational responsibilities that require constant secure communications capabilities," Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement Sunday afternoon. "This transfer occurs from time to time and is not tied chiefly to health related matters. The Deputy Secretary keeps a complete suite of communications and capable staff with her at all times, regardless of geographic location."

Upon being told of the hospitalization, a senior defense official said Hicks "immediately engaged staff on the drafting of a public statement and congressional outreach" and made "contingency plans" to return to Washington on Friday. 

"However, she was informed that same afternoon that the secretary was preparing to resume full communications capability and the associated operational responsibilities on Friday. She therefore remained in place to ensure the best communications posture in the interim," the official said. 

The White House was informed of Austin's status on Thursday morning, according to a Biden administration official. A Senate aide said the Senate Armed Services Committee was notified Friday evening. A senior House Armed Services Committee aide said the committee was told before the public was made aware Friday. 

"Due to illness, the Secretary's Chief of Staff was unable to make notifications before then," Ryder told CBS News on Sunday evening.

While responsible for some of Austin's duties, Hicks "made some routine operational and management decisions" for the Pentagon and "was fully authorized and ready to support the President on other military matters, should the need have arisen," the senior defense official said. 

Ryder said Sunday morning that Austin is "recovering well" and "resumed his full duties Friday evening." Details were not available about when Austin would be discharged. 

Ryder said later Sunday that Austin "received his normal Saturday drop," including the president's daily brief. Ryder said he did not know if Austin would do in-person briefings in the coming week, but said he will continue to receive the president's daily brief and that he has "access to a SCIF [sensitive compartmented information facility] and all necessary communication means at Walter Reed."

Austin acknowledged in a statement Saturday that he "could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed." 

"I commit to doing better," he said. "But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure."

David Martin, Nancy Cordes, Weijia Jiang, Kristin Brown, Scott MacFarlane and John Nolen contributed reporting. 

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