Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly authorized the military strike against Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen while being confined at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.
POLITICO first broke the news of this development, citing information from “two senior administration officials.” Even though Austin was treated for complications from a previous prostatectomy, he was reportedly involved in strategic discussions and closely monitored the operation from his hospital bed.
The strike conducted by American and British forces on Jan. 11 targeted the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen in response to the Tehran-backed militants’ harassment of ships in the Red Sea. U.S. Navy warships have been intercepting missile launches from Houthi-controlled areas for months. (Related: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warn Iran and its allies against escalating Israel-Hamas war.)
Austin nevertheless faced criticism from various quarters, including both sides of the political spectrum. He was chided for not promptly disclosing his hospitalization and allegedly leaving the White House uninformed.
Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-PA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed a loss of trust in Austin’s leadership and called for the secretary’s resignation. The congressman pointed to the perceived lack of transparency about Austin’s medical treatment and its potential impact on the chain of command. Deluzio ultimately emphasized the congressional duty to conduct oversight of the Department of Defense (DoD), which Austin leads.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden criticized Austin’s delayed notification of his hospitalization. The “lapse of judgment” on Austin’s part has brought attention to the broader issues of transparency and communication protocols within the administration. Despite this, the president expressed confidence in Austin’s continued leadership of the Defense Department.
Austin’s hospitalization triggers review of White House notification process
The lack of detailed information about Austin’s complications has raised concerns among experts, leading to calls for increased transparency in communicating such matters. The incident has prompted calls to review the notification process and raised questions about the transfer of military power and decision-making during high-ranking officials’ health challenges.
Austin’s prolonged hospitalization, which spanned over 11 days due to complications from prostate cancer treatment, has fueled speculation about the severity of his condition. Medical experts, including Dr. Oliver Sartor of the Mayo Clinic, have noted the unusual nature of the extended hospital stay.
The delayed disclosure of Austin’s hospitalization took several days to reach the public and and prompted reviews from key officials – including from both the White House and the Pentagon. The reviews aim to evaluate the notification process and determine whether policies need to be adjusted to ensure more timely and transparent communication, especially in matters related to national security.
Members of the U.S. Senate have also put in their two cents on the matter. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) emphasized the need to ensure that such situations do not occur again. Meanwhile, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) raised concerns about the impact of the breach in protocol on the U.S.’s ability to project strength on the world stage.
Austin’s job appears secure despite the criticism, with the National Security Council (NSC) expressing confidence in his continued leadership. NSC spokesman John Kirby noted that there are “no plans or anything other than for Austin to stay in the job and continue in the leadership that he’s been demonstrating.”
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Watch Clayton and Natali Morris discuss calls by senators for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s resignation below.