A top White House official ordered cabinet secretaries on Tuesday to keep his office informed when they may not be able to perform their duties after Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was hospitalized for several days last week without telling President Biden or his staff.
In a memo, Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, directed cabinet officers to evaluate their current policies for delegating authority when a secretary is incapacitated and to forward those procedures to the White House for review. In the meantime, Mr. Zients made clear that White House officials expected to be kept up to date about developments like major medical issues.
“Notify the Offices of Cabinet Affairs and White House Chief of Staff in the event of a delegation of authority or potential delegation,” Mr. Zients wrote in the memo, which was obtained by The New York Times. “This notification should occur when agencies anticipate or are preparing for a delegation of authority and again when the delegation occurs.” He added that he wanted any such notification in writing.
The directive by Mr. Zients reflected the sense of consternation in the West Wing that the nation’s top defense official, who is part of the nuclear chain of command, could be in the intensive care unit for so long without the president or other major national security officials being aware of it. Even Mr. Austin’s deputy secretary, who would be called upon to act in a crisis in his absence, was not told at first.
Mr. Biden has signaled that he does not plan to fire Mr. Austin because of the incident despite calls by some Republicans to do so, but people close to the White House described a deep frustration and bafflement among some in the president’s team. Mr. Austin, a reserved retired general, does not have a particularly intimate relationship with Mr. Biden or his team, but he is generally well liked and respected, making the situation all the more upsetting to them.
Even now, some in the White House have been pressing for Mr. Austin to disclose more about the medical issues that required him to be taken by ambulance to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Jan. 1. The Pentagon has said only that he was hospitalized for complications arising from “an elective medical procedure” on Dec. 22, but has not revealed what the original procedure was or the nature of the complications.
Mr. Austin resumed his duties on Friday from his hospital bed and “has received operational updates and has provided necessary guidance” from there, Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement on Monday, but it was not clear when he would be released. The Pentagon said the secretary “is recovering and is in good spirits.”
The Defense Department has ordered its own 30-day review of what happened and how its procedures should be changed if necessary. In another memo obtained by The Times, Kelly E. Magsamen, Mr. Austin’s chief of staff, on Monday ordered Jennifer Walsh, the department’s administration and management director, “to identify the relevant facts and circumstances during this period and evaluate the processes and procedures through which the deputy secretary of defense was notified that she should carry out the functions and duties of the secretary of defense.”
While the review is underway, Ms. Magsamen directed that if the secretary’s power is delegated again, his office should notify the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the combatant commanders, service secretaries and chiefs of staff, the Pentagon general counsel, senior aides to the secretary and his deputy and the White House Situation Room.
In his memo on Tuesday, Mr. Zients directed all cabinet departments to send him their current procedures by Friday so that he can evaluate them to determine if they need adjustment. He made clear that power should be transferred “when a cabinet member is traveling to areas with limited or no access to communication, undergoing hospitalization or a medical procedure requiring general anesthesia, or otherwise in a circumstance when he or she may be unreachable.”
It was not clear whether Mr. Biden himself knows the specifics of Mr. Austin’s medical issues. The two men spoke on Saturday, but the White House has not given many details about their conversation other than that Mr. Biden wished the secretary a speedy recovery. Several White House officials said they do not know the details of Mr. Austin’s condition.
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Monday that “the president’s No. 1 focus is on his health and recovery” and added that there are “no plans or anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job.”
Mr. Austin participated in a secure conference call on the morning of New Year’s Day with Mr. Biden, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, the national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other officials about operations in the Middle East, according to the White House. At some point that day, Mr. Austin experienced what a spokesman said was “severe pain” and was taken to Walter Reed.
Four aides to the secretary were informed the next day, according to the Pentagon, but did not promptly pass word to the White House or to key colleagues at the Defense Department. Mr. Sullivan was not informed until Thursday, and the Pentagon made the secretary’s hospitalization public on Friday evening in a bare-bones statement.
A key question will be how the delegation of authority to Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary, was handled. Ms. Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time, and the Pentagon said the secretary’s power was transferred to her last Tuesday through Friday. But officials have said Ms. Hicks was not informed about Mr. Austin’s hospitalization until Thursday.
Mr. Austin has acknowledged the lack of transparency. “I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed,” he said in a statement on Saturday. “I commit to doing better.”
Republicans have remained dissatisfied. “I am quickly losing faith in Sec Austin’s ability to lead DoD in this turbulent time,” Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Alabama and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote on social media Monday evening, referring to the Department of Defense. “The decision by Sec Austin & his team to withhold vital info from the President & Congress must be addressed. We must hear from Sec Austin & DoD on this lack of transparency.”