Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin holds a holiday morale call at the Pentagon on Dec. 21, 2023.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin holds a holiday morale call at the Pentagon on Dec. 21, 2023. (John Wright/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday launched a formal inquiry into Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s failure to disclose his illness and hospitalization that has now lasted more than a week.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., is asking Austin, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, to answer detailed questions and hand over documents related to delays in informing the White House, top Pentagon officials and lawmakers about Austin’s medical condition.

“As you must be aware, this lack of transparency is inexcusable and could have resulted in calamity,” Rogers wrote in a letter to Magsamen. “Congress must understand how this unacceptable breakdown in disclosure concerning the secretary’s capacity to lead the [Defense] Department occurred.”

Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Jan. 1 after experiencing complications from a surgery to treat prostate cancer. Hicks, his deputy, began covering part of his duties on Jan. 2 but did not know about Austin’s hospitalization until Jan. 4.

“The secretary’s failure to inform his No. 2 in command is unacceptable and begs many questions concerning the intent behind his secrecy and lack of transparency,” Rogers wrote in a letter to Hicks.

The White House was informed Jan. 4 that Austin was hospitalized, three days after he was rushed to Walter Reed for “severe pain,” and congressional leaders found out only minutes before the Pentagon issued a news release to the public on Jan. 5 at about 5 p.m.

The reason for Austin’s hospitalization and his cancer diagnosis were revealed Tuesday. John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said the White House also was not informed of the surgery in December, though the medical procedure required Austin to be put under anesthesia.

Austin has acknowledged the lack of transparency and said he was committed to “doing better.” Rogers wrote in a letter to Austin on Tuesday that the handling of his absence amid wars in Ukraine and Israel greatly concerned lawmakers.

“The department is a robust institution, and it is designed to function under attack by our enemies, but it is not designed for a secretary who conceals being incapacitated,” Rogers wrote.

The Defense Department on Monday ordered a 30-day review of what happened during the notification process last week but that has not satisfied some lawmakers.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the internal review ordered by Magsamen, who is also under scrutiny, is “woefully inadequate.”

“We need to have an Armed Services [committee] hearing on this, if there’s an investigation, that needs to be done by an outside inspector general,” he told Fox News in an interview on Tuesday.

Wicker said he did not think Austin would resign over the incident, though calls for Austin to step down continued among some Republicans.

A group of former pilots from the Navy and Air Force who are now serving in the House told President Joe Biden in a letter on Tuesday that Austin’s “serious lapse in judgment” warranted his immediate resignation.

“If he does not resign, he should be immediately dismissed,” they said.

The letter was signed by Reps. August Pfluger, R-Texas, Jake Ellzey, R-Texas, Mike Garcia, R-Calif., and Scott Franklin, R-Fla.

Kirby maintained Tuesday that Biden still had “full faith and confidence” in Austin and would keep the secretary in his position until the end of his term.

author picture
Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now