Lloyd Austin’s Surgery Blunder May Have Compromised National Security

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Donald Rumsfeld’s left shoulder had been acting up, an injury likely dating back a half-century to his days as the captain of Princeton’s wrestling team. It was 2006 and the 74-year-old Secretary of Defense found a stretch in his schedule that was as calm as it was ever going to be, and traveled to Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, to fix his rotator cuff.

But, before heading to a two-hour procedure that would take place under local anesthesia, Rumsfeld dealt with one of the many new realities borne out of the post-9/11 environment: he temporarily transferred power to his deputy to respond to potential foreign aircraft coming into U.S. airspace. The power to order the downing of a potentially hostile plane reverted to Rumsfeld shortly after he began his recovery, which featured the notoriously frenetic Secretary asking for his inbox while still in the post-op suite.

The Pentagon’s press secretary told reporters in real time about the brief transfer, Rumsfeld’s procedure and recovery, and the doctors’ prognosis for his return to the office. It should have been a model for future interruptions in the chain of command, be it for long-scheduled elective surgeries like Rumsfeld’s or more emergency-driven crises. 

Nearly 20 years later, few hold Rumsfeld up as a model of a Pentagon chief. And yet, his understanding of the basic responsibilities of his office was apparently miles ahead of the current occupant, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who failed to inform practically anyone who needed to know that he had undergone elective surgery on Dec. 22. The Pentagon is pointedly refusing to say whether Austin, during his initial procedure or the follow-up admittance to Walter Reed, was put under anesthesia or lost consciousness. Officials also are not signaling when Austin might leave the hospital or return to the office.

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But this much is clear: Austin caught his own deputy, the National Security Council, and even an annoyed President Joe Biden by surprise when he reluctantly announced that an elective—but non-specified—procedure on Dec. 22 had sent him back into the hospital on Jan. 1. A day after returning to the hospital, the 70-year-old Secretary transferred some of his powers to his deputy, who was on vacation with her family in Puerto Rico. But Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks wasn’t told the reason for another two days, nor was anyone in the White House looped in on the fact the top civilian at the Pentagon was potentially out of commission. Gen. C.Q. Brown Jr., the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Biden’s principal military adviser, also was informed last Tuesday.

Only when it became clear that last Monday’s check-in at Walter Reed was going to last into the weekend did Austin’s top aide tell senior leadership of the Pentagon, Congress, and the public late Friday. Because these stories always need someone thrown under the bus, officials started blaming Austin’s chief of staff, who herself was out sick. (Why no one else on his staff could have made this disclosure still defies reason.)

To put it bluntly, such an obfuscation is precisely the kind of leaderless moment that U.S. law and policy are to avoid. Officials say Austin resumed duties on Friday but stayed in the hospital as a precaution.

For those unfamiliar with the Defense Department, it’s a sprawling organization that reaches deep into military outposts, plane makers and weapons systems, satellite networks and on-base schools. The Defense Department is the world’s largest employer, and its machinery takes up roughly one-sixth of the entire federal budget. And, for at least a few days recently, had no one atop the pyramid as deadly conflicts continued to unfold in Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza. If no Americans or American interests were put at risk, it was through fools’ luck and not anything the Office of the Secretary of Defense laid in preparation.

Austin is no dummy here. A retired four-star Army General, Austin previously led U.S. Central Command, served as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, and ran U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, he knew better. Members of both parties have many, many questions about what, exactly, Austin thought he was doing in keeping this from them. The defense establishment in Washington and beyond are left puzzled by the choice. And the White House is quickly tiring of questions whether Austin will get to keep his job. (For what it’s worth: the White House says it’s sticking with Austin.)

As it stands, Austin's baffling blunder won't define his legacy, or drop him in the inevitable Defense Secretary rankings below Rumsfeld, whose record leads some to brand him the worst ever to run the Pentagon’s E Ring, worse than even Vietnam architect Robert McNamara. But on the question of who was in charge of the Pentagon and its ability to blast a threat from the sky for those few hours back in 2006, Rumsfeld got it right. And, when it comes to someone who should have similarly known better, and at the very least notified key members of the Biden administration about his situation, Austin in 2024 got it about as wrong as he could.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com