In a letter to the secretary sent Thursday, committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said the appearance is needed because Austin has shown “unwillingness to provide candid and complete answers” regarding the events leading up to his hospitalization earlier this month.
“When you and I last spoke, you promised full transparency into questions regarding the secrecy of your recent hospitalization,” Rogers wrote in the letter. “While you did respond to some of my questions I had for you, a concerning number of questions were not addressed. Specifically, I am alarmed you refused to answer whether you instructed your staff to not inform the president of the United States or anyone else of your hospitalization.”
Austin, 70, was rushed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 1 after developing a urinary tract infection from prostate cancer treatment nine days earlier. The White House and senior Pentagon officials were not informed of the emergency visit or Austin’s cancer diagnosis until several days later.
Austin has publicly apologized for the lack of communication. Pentagon officials have said the confusion was in part due to Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, also being ill for several days during the time he was in the hospital.
White House officials have ordered a full review of Cabinet members’ chains of command following the controversy, but also publicly stated that President Joe Biden still has confidence in Austin’s ability to lead the Department of Defense.
But numerous lawmakers from both parties have voiced concerns about how the situation was handled, and questioned whether senior officials were properly notified of their responsibilities while Austin was in medical care. At least 11 members of Congress have called for Austin’s resignation or removal.
Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees initially declined to hold hearings on the issue, noting that Austin is already expected to testify at a series of Capitol Hill budget meetings this spring.
But Rogers on Thursday said he is scheduling a Feb. 14 hearing specifically on the issue of Austin’s health because he believes that “information is being withheld from Congress” regarding the incident.
Specifically, committee leaders are requesting timelines of when senior defense and administration officials were notified of Austin’s health issues and whether he instructed anyone to hide his health status.
“Congress must understand what happened and who made decisions to prevent the disclosure of the whereabouts of a Cabinet secretary,” Rogers wrote.
“This is a time of immense global instability. Our country deserves reliable leadership at the department. Maintaining the most ready and lethal force possible requires that everyone in the national security community be able to rely upon the Secretary of Defense’s availability and transparency. Regrettably, you have not exhibited these attributes throughout this most recent string of events.”
Austin returned home from Walter Reed on Jan. 14 but has not yet returned to full-time work at the Pentagon.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.