US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a press conference at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on February 1, 2024.
CNN  — 

A Pentagon review of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s delayed notification of his January hospitalization found there was no deliberate attempt to “obfuscate” the situation but did make a series of recommendations to improve processes around the transfer of authorities to his deputy.

The summary of the review released on Monday, which was directed to be done by Austin’s chief of staff Kelly Magsamen on January 11, said Austin’s staff was limited “in three significant ways” during his hospitalization, which resulted from complications of a prostate cancer procedure in December.

“First, medical privacy laws prohibited medical providers from candid sharing of medical information with the Secretary’s staff,” the review said. “Second, for privacy reasons, his staff were hesitant to pry or share any information that they did learn. Third, the Secretary’s medical situation remained in flux and as long as he remained in the Critical Care Unit, timely secured communications could not be assured.”

The review — carried out by the director of the Office of Administration and Management, who the Pentagon spokesman said is a career official — was ordered after intense questioning by lawmakers over Austin’s transfer of authority during his hospitalization to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks and the days-long delay in notification to the White House, Congress, and the public. The Pentagon inspector general also launched a review of whether appropriate policies are in place to ensure “timely and appropriate notifications” and the transfer of authorities.

The review made eight total recommendations, which Austin is implementing. Those mostly focus on processes and guidelines, such as requiring proposed training or communication plans to ensure officials and their staffs are aware of their responsibilities during a transfer of authority. Austin has also directed a review of internal reporting requirements for transfer of authorities from the general counsel.

“All of these actions demonstrate our deep commitment to strengthening our internal processes without delay,” Austin said Monday in a memo outlining the recommendations. “As I have repeatedly stated, we are a learning organization, and we will continue to strengthen our processes as we identify ways to improve upon our existing procedures.”

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder added on Monday that the recommendations required additional notifications to the White House and ensure that Pentagon officials in the order of succession “are familiar with relevant processes and procedures.”

“The chiefs of staff for the Secretary and Deputy Secretary have issued written guidance and conveyed reporting expectations to make routine how information flowing to the Secretary is shared with the Deputy Secretary and immediate staff,” Ryder said.

While the review on Monday makes clear Austin’s staff was unwilling to share information out of concern for privacy, Austin said previously that he does not believe the situation was due to a “culture of secrecy.”

“I don’t think I’ve created a culture of secrecy,” Austin said during a press briefing this month. “I think there will be security officers, there will be other staff members who may perceive that they’re doing things in my best interest, and, you know, I can’t predict or determine or ascertain what those things may be.”

Asked about Austin’s staff’s unwillingness to share information, Ryder said he would not get into why individuals “did or did not take certain specific actions.”

“I think we can all agree, you know, it is not uncommon for a natural human response when it comes to things like medical care to default to a privacy setting. But the secretary also made clear during that press briefing that he acknowledges we can do better, that we will do better, and that his office has a responsibility to be more transparent,” Ryder said.

‘No findings of ill will or ill intent’

Asked if anyone would be held responsible for the shortfalls in communication about Austin’s hospitalization, Ryder said Austin is “very proud of the team that he has supporting him.”

“[W]hen you look at the review it highlighted that there was no findings of ill will or ill intent or obfuscation, but that people, public servants, dedicated public servants, were doing what they thought was the right thing in order to continue to carry out the DoD national security mission,” Ryder said.

Austin was hospitalized on January 1 for complications related to a prostate cancer surgical procedure he had on December 22, including severe abdominal, hip and leg pain. Multiple days passed, however, before other US officials knew of Austin’s condition.

The White House was not informed of his December 22 procedure, nor was the White House told of Austin’s hospitalization until several days afterwards.

Despite transferring some responsibilities to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, on January 2 — the day Austin went into intensive care — CNN reported that Hicks was not informed of her boss’s health condition until January 4, when the White House was also told. Congress and the public were not informed of Austin’s hospitalization until January 5, drawing significant criticism from lawmakers over Austin’s failure to disclose the situation.

And despite speaking to President Joe Biden from the hospital on January 6, the White House said they were still unaware of Austin’s cancer diagnosis until shortly before it was announced by his doctors days later.

“Nobody in the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning, and the President was informed immediately after,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said January 9.

“It is not optimal for a situation like this to go as long as it did without the commander in chief knowing about it,” Kirby added.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers eventually requested a hearing on Austin’s disclosure, or lack thereof; Austin is now expected to testify before Congress on Thursday.

Rogers said in a statement on X that the review released Monday “HELD NO ONE ACCOUNTABLE. This is why we are conducting our own investigation. We will seek answers at our hearing w/ Sec Austin on Thursday.”

Austin said in February — more than a week before he would again be admitted to the hospital, this time for a bladder issue — that he did not handle his cancer diagnosis or hospitalization correctly.

He said that the diagnosis of prostate cancer “shook me” as it does for “so many others especially in a Black community.”

“I want to be crystal clear: We did not handle this right. And 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,” Austin said from the Pentagon briefing room. “I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.”

Austin also said that he did not direct anyone “to keep my January hospitalization from the White House,” and that his first instinct was to keep his health challenges private as he does not like “burdening others with my problems.”

“It’s just not my way,” Austin said. “But I’ve learned from this experience, taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect. The American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties even temporarily.”