The Pentagon’s inspector general said on Thursday that he would investigate the handling of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III’s continuing hospitalization, which Mr. Austin and his top aides failed to disclose to President Biden and Congress for days after he developed serious complications from prostate cancer surgery.
The inspector general, Robert P. Storch, wrote in a memo to Mr. Austin and the deputy defense secretary, Kathleen H. Hicks, that his office would begin this month to examine “the roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities and actions” related to the hospitalization.
The office would also scrutinize whether the Defense Department’s “policies and procedures are sufficient to ensure timely and appropriate notifications and the effective transition of authorities as may be warranted due to health-based or other unavailability of senior leadership,” Mr. Storch said.
The independent review will be conducted in addition to a 30-day assessment by Mr. Austin’s office. The White House has also ordered a review after its top officials were not notified until three days after the defense secretary was admitted with the complications. Lawmakers have also said they will investigate the matter.
Mr. Austin, 70, was in severe pain and rushed to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Jan. 1. He was put in intensive care after complications from a surgery he underwent on Dec. 22 to remove his prostate, the hospital disclosed this week.
But several senior aides at the Defense Department did not learn of the secretary’s hospitalization until the next day, Jan. 2. The White House was not notified until Jan. 4, a major breach in protocol at the highest national security levels. Further complicating matters, neither Pentagon nor White House officials learned until Tuesday that Mr. Austin had been diagnosed with cancer last month.
“It’s not good,” John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman and a former Pentagon spokesman, told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday. “It’s certainly not good, which is why we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
While Mr. Biden’s aides said this week that he would not fire Mr. Austin, they acknowledged the breakdown in communications and moved to assert new discipline over the administration. Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, ordered a review of procedures and sent a directive to cabinet secretaries making clear that they are to inform the White House when they are unable to perform their duties.
The episode has raised questions about Mr. Austin’s credibility as well as his department’s overall competence. The Pentagon’s shifting stories, put forth by junior officials seeking to protect their boss, have not helped matters. The stark breach of protocol has also lessened the overall credibility of the Defense Department, lawmakers and current and former U.S. officials said, with both the White House and Congress.
“Our secretary of defense failed to notify the president, he failed to notify Congress, he failed to notify his subordinates or the National Security Council when he was absent for days,” said Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “I’m grateful that he is recovering well. But the problem here is his judgment.”
Mr. Austin continues to work from the hospital while he recuperates, Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Thursday. And while doctors say they expect Mr. Austin to make a full recovery, there has been no indication yet of when he will leave Walter Reed.
Karoun Demirjian contributed reporting.