The Pentagon came under increased pressure Sunday to explain why senior Biden administration officials, congressional representatives and the president himself were not notified of the hospitalization of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III until days later.
Former Vice President Mike Pence called Mr. Austin’s delay in disclosing his hospitalization a “dereliction of duty.” Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Mr. Pence said that the “handling of this by the secretary of defense is totally unacceptable.”
He said that Americans “have a right to know about his medical condition, about the reasons for it.”
Representatives Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and Adam Smith of Washington, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement on Sunday that they were “concerned with how the disclosure of the secretary’s condition was handled.”
“Several questions remain unanswered,” they added, “including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the secretary’s responsibilities were made and the reason for the delay in notification to the president and Congress.”
Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, told “Fox News Sunday” that the lack of disclosure was “shocking.”
Mr. Austin has yet to disclose why he has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for the past week. He was still there on Sunday but was making calls, receiving operational updates and “recovering well and in good spirits,” Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
In response to questions from The New York Times, General Ryder said that Mr. Austin underwent an elective medical procedure at Walter Reed on Dec. 22, two days after returning from a five-day trip to the Middle East, and returned home on Dec. 23. After experiencing “severe pain” on Jan. 1, Mr. Austin was taken to Walter Reed and put in the hospital’s intensive care unit, General Ryder said.
Pentagon officials were scrambling over the weekend to put together an explanation about who knew what when. A senior military official said that Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the country’s most senior officer, was informed by his own staff on Tuesday of Mr. Austin’s hospitalization.
But many members of Mr. Austin’s senior team at the Pentagon were not told, officials said, and the White House and the president were not informed until Thursday, three days after the defense secretary was hospitalized for what the Pentagon called complications from an elective medical procedure.
General Ryder told The Times that because Mr. Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly E. Magsamen, was ill, she was unable to make notifications until Thursday. At that time, General Ryder said, Ms. Magsamen notified Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary, and Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, about Mr. Austin’s hospitalization.
It was unclear why another top Pentagon aide did not make the notifications earlier in the week.
On Sunday, Pentagon officials were still sorting through their timeline, saying that Mr. Austin had planned to work from home last week but that he and his staff did not intend to imply that he was working when he was actually hospitalized. That response was to assertions that Mr. Austin’s aides had told people he was working from home when they knew he was in the hospital.
On Saturday night, Mr. Austin issued an apology of sorts.
“I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed,” he said in a statement. “I commit to doing better.”
Mr. Austin added, “This was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decision about disclosure.”