The House Armed Services Committee on Thursday asked Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to testify next month about why he and his aides hid at the White House for several days that he had was hospitalized after having complications related to an operation for prostate cancer.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Mike D. Rogers, Republican of Alabama, said “Congress needs to understand what happened and who made the decision to prevent disclosure of the whereabouts of a cabinet secretary.”
Mr. Rogers said he had scheduled a hearing for Feb. 14 after accusing Mr. Austin of dodging important questions about the secretary’s hospitalization during a recent phone call between the two men.
“In particular, I am concerned that you refused to say whether you instructed your staff not to inform the President of the United States or anyone else about your hospitalization,” Mr. Rogers said in a communicated. letter to Mr. Austin that the committee made public Thursday evening. “Unfortunately, this leads me to believe that information is being withheld from Congress.”
Mr. Austin was released Monday from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and has been working from home while recovering. Top Pentagon aides have scrambled to try to put the episode behind them, seeking to portray an image of returning to work, even from home, for their boss by issuing statements that he spoke by telephone this week with his counterparts from Ukraine and Israel. .
But there is little chance that the problem will go away soon. Lawmakers and senior administration officials say Mr. Austin’s handling of the matter has damaged his credibility with President Biden and Congress, and that it raises questions about his department’s overall competence to deal with the crisis he himself caused. All of this is now the subject of a 30-day internal department review, as well as an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general.
Mr. Austin, a 70-year-old retired Army general, was in severe pain and was rushed by ambulance to Walter Reed on January 1. He was placed in intensive care after complications related to a prostate removal operation he underwent on December 22.
But several senior Pentagon officials did not learn of the Secretary of State’s hospitalization until the next day, January 2. The White House was not informed until January 4, a major breach of protocol at the highest levels of national security. To complicate matters further, neither Pentagon nor White House officials learned until January 9 that Mr. Austin had been diagnosed with cancer in early December.