‘He’s a cipher’: How Austin’s need for privacy just backfired

“My sense is his desire to be private about a routine medical procedure kind of backfired when it didn’t go as planned,” said one senior U.S. official. “He’s so loyal and duty-bound. It’s all just very odd.”

Former and current U.S. officials who have worked with Austin say he is well-known as an introvert, shunning the cameras and keeping only a few close confidantes during his decades-long military career. As the four-star general overseeing U.S. Central Command during the Iraq drawdown, he rarely held press conferences. As defense secretary, in contrast to his predecessors, he takes only a handful of media on official travel. He has not done a press conference in the Pentagon since last July, although he regularly briefs the press during his travels.

This article is based on conversations with eight current U.S. officials and one former senior DOD official, most of whom were granted anonymity to discuss internal views.

Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on the evening of Jan. 1 for complications from a recent elective medical procedure — though he has declined to provide details. For three days, not even the
White House
knew of his hospitalization. DOD officials notified top Pentagon civilians and military leaders only two hours before the public reveal on Friday evening. Congress was only informed 15 minutes before the announcement went out.

The first time Austin and Biden spoke since the secretary’s Monday hospitalization was Saturday evening, a senior administration official said, even as tensions in the Middle East have spiked and the war in Ukraine has intensified. The conversation followed reports,
first from POLITICO
, that the Pentagon boss waited three days to inform the White House that he was out of commission.

Biden wished Austin well for his recovery and looks forward to seeing the secretary back at work soon, said a senior administration official. Austin resumed his full duties on Friday and — despite criticism from administration officials, Republicans and the media — is not considering resigning from his post, DOD spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said.

Austin’s job appears safe — at least for the moment, but pressure is growing within the administration and on Capitol Hill for someone to lose their job.

“This is basic, sort of subordinate behavior, 101, and the secretary of defense was subordinate to the commander in chief and he failed,” said the second senior DOD official.

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, slammed the decision to keep Austin’s hospital stay secret, calling it a “shocking defiance of the law.” Former Vice President Mike Pence told CNN on Sunday that Austin’s actions were a “dereliction of duty.”

Democrats so far have either defended the secretary or declined to comment. “I don’t think it is a dereliction of duty,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on CNN. “He is a stand-up guy. He’s a great defense secretary. He has been a tremendous military man in this country.”

Senior White House officials have enjoyed a close working relationship with Austin. After Biden ordered the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which military officials opposed, Austin told them not to complain in public settings and execute the order. And since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many senior administration aides credit Austin with
convincing Western countries to deliver advanced weapons to Kyiv

The White House, and Biden in particular, likes that Austin keeps his opinions to private meetings and doesn’t knife-fight in the media like some previous defense chiefs. Biden still seethes at past Pentagon bosses and military leaders who openly complained that then-President Barack Obama would not send enough troops to defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Biden still feels Obama’s surge of thousands of troops to the war on terrorism is partly due to the Pentagon leaking assessments and limiting the White House’s decision-making space.

Austin’s loyalty and close-lipped nature ensures that when a secret needs to be kept, “you’ve pretty much got it locked down,” said the senior DOD official. But it also can cause problems because the secretary may not be getting “the full picture spectrum of inputs” that he needs to provide the best advice to the president.

“He’s a cipher,” said the senior DOD official. “He lets in very, very few people, and that can be a good and bad thing.”

Austin’s pursuit of a low profile gelled with the Biden administration’s goal to turn the focus away from the Pentagon to the State Department and National Security Council — on diplomacy versus military action, said Barbara Starr, a former CNN Pentagon correspondent and now a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

“They weren’t interested in having a secretary of defense who would be grabbing the headlines. And so the situation right now is just so ironic because I think what Austin has really done is create a potential headline-grabbing problem for the White House,” Starr said.

“We don’t know how his medical situation unfolded and how and why they made those decision over that period of three days,” she added. “The bottom line is regardless, what Lloyd Austin has done is what no Cabinet secretary wants to do, he has caused the president a political problem.”

Other Cabinet secretaries, when traveling with reporters, will frequently chat with those journalists on or off the record, which can offer reporters insight into their thinking and let those officials build relationships with those reporters.

Austin has long tried to stay out of the spotlight.

In 2014, the then-general demanded a
public speaking engagement at the Atlantic Council think tank
not be filmed by the press. Reporters were allowed in the room for the chat on the war against ISIS, but
Austin expected the talk
with CNN’s Jake Tapper to be a “scholarly discussion.” Austin’s staff told the Atlantic Council’s organizers the day before the session he would not appear if cameras were in the room, a change from an earlier agreement between the think tank and Central Command.

One U.S. official also pointed to a tense exchange with late Sen. John McCain in 2015 cemented Austin’s aversion to appearing in the headlines. McCain
slammed Austin
during a Senate Armed Services Committee for defending the Obama administration’s plan to defeat the Islamic State at a time when the militant group was expanding its reach.

“Basically, general, what you’re telling us is everything’s fine,” said McCain sarcastically, noting that he had never heard testimony “so divorced from reality.”

Others say Austin has always been private to a fault. Even during senior-level Pentagon meetings, Austin rarely goes off script.

“In every meeting, in everything, he says nothing,” said one former senior Defense Department official, who worked closely with Austin in multiple senior jobs. “In a broad variety of meetings, he keeps his own counsel and you’re never going to know what he’s thinking.”

Joe Gould contributed to this report.

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