Miami Herald

Austin must rebuild trust after his absence

- The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press Editorial

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently took responsibi­lity for not notifying the White House when he was hospitaliz­ed at the beginning of January, an important first step in rebuilding trust with President Joe Biden, Congress and the American people.

While Austin’s desire to keep his medical situation private is understand­able, this was a severe breach of protocol at a time when escalating global conflicts demanded more robust and timely communicat­ion. The country, and especially our service members, deserved better.

According to the Pentagon, Austin underwent surgery on Dec. 22 to remove his prostate and complicati­ons forced him back to the intensive care unit at Walter Reed Medical Center on Jan. 1.

At that time, per U.S. law, he was required to report to the White House that he would be absent from his duties and identify who would be serving in his place. But even Austin’s second-in-command was reportedly left in the dark until Jan. 2 and the president wasn’t formally notified until Jan. 4.

One might chalk that up to a procedural oversight were it not for the fact that Austin is second only to the commander-inchief in leading the U.S. military. His absence occurred at a time when thousands of service members were deployed to crisis points around the globe.

That includes thousands of personnel based in Hampton Roads who are serving in the Middle East, where the Israel-Hamas war rages and where militia groups sponsored and supported by Iran continue to lob weapons at military and commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Though Americans aren’t on the ground in Ukraine helping that country repel the Russian invasion, it too demands constant monitoring at the highest levels of leadership.

That’s to say nothing of the various other conflicts around the globe in which the United States is a party. Austin’s absence occurred only weeks before a drone attack against an American base in Jordan killed three servicemem­bers and injured at least 34 others. Had that happened on Jan. 2 rather than Jan. 28, how would the Pentagon have responded with its top official AWOL?

Every Cabinet-level secretary is buttressed by deputies and associated staff members who help ensure these massive federal department­s operate as effectivel­y and cohesively as possible. And while those in the Defense Department displayed the utmost profession­alism amid this uncommon situation, Austin let them down by not following procedure when it was clear he wouldn’t be able to carry out his duties.

Speaking to the media on Feb. 1 for his first news conference in more than a year, Austin took responsibi­lity for his actions, saying, “We did not handle this right; I did not handle this right. I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibi­lity.”

In explaining his absence, he said he reasoned that the president had enough on his plate without worrying about his defense secretary’s medical condition. But the reason federal law requires notificati­on in these situations is so the president can make informed decisions.

The Pentagon inspector general has announced plans to investigat­e the circumstan­ces surroundin­g Austin’s absence, and Austin has pledged to cooperate.

Biden says he still has confidence in his defense secretary, despite this. Rebuilding trust with service members and the general public will be a taller ask for Austin in the days and weeks ahead.

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