Feb 27, 2024

Pentagon Briefing on 2/26/24 Transcript

Pat Ryder speaking at the podium at a Pentagon Briefing
RevBlogTranscriptsPat RyderPentagon Briefing on 2/26/24 Transcript

Pentagon Briefing on 2/26/24. Read the transcript here.


General Pat Ryder (00:00):

… and circumstances related to Secretary Austin’s hospitalization, January 1-5 to evaluate the processes and procedures through which the Deputy Secretary of Defense was notified that she would carry out the functions and duties of the Secretary of Defense, and to recommend process improvements.

The review was completed within the 30-day window and submitted to Secretary Austin, who reviewed the document and signed out a memo today, February 26th, to senior DOD leaders outlining follow-on actions the department will take in response, to include implementation of recommendations contained in the review. Because the review includes sensitive details about the Department’s continuity of operations plans and personnel security, the drafters of the report wrote it as a classified document. The classified version of the report has been shared with Congress.

As Secretary Austin has said, we are committed to being as transparent as possible and sharing as much information about the 30-day review as possible. And today, we are releasing the unclassified summary of the classified 30-day review written by the Office of the Director of Administration and Management that summarizes their findings on the key events and related observations identified in the report. We are also releasing Secretary Austin’s memo outlining the actions he is directing in response to the review’s helpful recommendations.

Of note, the review found that the Deputy Secretary was at all times positioned to perform all the functions and duties of the Secretary of Defense during the period of transfer from January 2-5, 2024. It also identified several process and procedural improvements that could be made.

As we highlighted last month, the department took immediate action to implement improvements to the processes and procedures employed when a designated official assumes the functions and duties of the Secretary. The department also issued supplemental guidance to specifically require additional notifications to the White House and to clarify decision-making regarding the need for an assumption of functions and duties.

The Secretary and Deputy Secretary have already implemented two of the recommendations contained in the 30-day review, reaffirming their expectations around information sharing, staffing support, team relationships, and understanding of any changes in process or staff support when someone else assumes the functions and duties as acting Secretary of Defense.

Additionally, the Chiefs of Staff for the Secretary and Deputy Secretary have issued written guidance and conveyed reporting expectations to make routine how information flowing to the Secretary is shared with the Deputy Secretary and immediate staff.

As outlined in his memo, there are six additional recommendations the Secretary is directing to be implemented, most within the next 90 days. These actions are intended to ensure key department officials in the order of succession are familiar with relevant processes and procedures, and that reporting protocol is developed for personnel who provide support to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense related to situations or circumstances that might impact these leaders’ ability to perform their duties and functions.

In addition, these actions require the department to review, update, and align internal reporting requirements associated with transfer-of-authorities, situations relating to the Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and others in the order of succession, and to ensure continuity of operations plans are reviewed and updated, as well.

All of these actions demonstrate our deep commitment to strengthening our internal processes without delay. As Secretary Austin has repeatedly stated, we are a learning organization and will continue to strengthen our processes as we identify ways to improve upon existing procedures. The unclassified summary, along with the secretary’s memo, can be found on the DOD website.

Finally, in support of multinational efforts to defend the lives of international mariners and restore freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and surrounding waterways, the militaries of the United States, United Kingdom, with support from Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand conducted strikes February 23 against military targets in Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen.

Coalition forces targeted eight locations and struck 18 targets, which included Houthi underground weapons storage facilities, missile storage facilities, one-way attack unmanned aerial systems, air defense systems radars, and a helicopter to further disrupt and degrade the capabilities of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia to conduct their destabilizing and reckless attacks against US and international vessels lawfully transiting the Red Sea, the Bab-al-Mandab Strait, and the Gulf of Aden.

It’s important to highlight as well that the Houthis continue to demonstrate utter disregard for the regional and humanitarian impact of their indiscriminate attacks, threatening the fishing industry, coastal communities, and imports of food supplies. As Secretary Austin underscored in his statement on Saturday, the United States will not hesitate to take action as needed to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways.

Again, we’ll continue to make clear to the Houthis that they will bear the consequences if they do not stop their illegal attacks, which harm Middle Eastern economies, cause environmental damage and disrupt the delivery of humanitarian aid to Yemen and other countries.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions. We’ll start with Associated Press, Tara.

Tara (05:29):

Hi, General Ryder. Thanks for doing this. First on the 30-day review. Of reading the unclassified summary, you’re left with an impression that this was just somewhat blameless, just couldn’t be helped due to privacy laws, but the Secretary is not a private person, he’s sixth in line in succession to the presidency. How did privacy keep this information from getting to the Commander-in-Chief and getting… Why was that a reason?

General Pat Ryder (05:58):

Well, Tara, as the Secretary has said, the buck stops with him and he’s taken responsibility for not notifying the President and the White House sooner. And the review is also clear that there can be more guidance for how determinations are made, executed and communicated.

But again, as the Office of the Director of Administration and Management conducted this review, they found nothing during the review that demonstrated any indication of ill intent or attempt to obfuscate by the individuals involved.

So as you saw us do very quickly, we took some immediate steps to ensure that there were actions taken to improve communication with organizations such as the White House and the President, and you saw us demonstrate that most recently when the Secretary visited Walter Reed on February 11th.

Tara (06:50):

Okay. And secondly, yesterday, an active-duty service member set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in protest of US support for Israel’s operations in Gaza. Has the Secretary been briefed on Airman Bushnell? And is he concerned that maybe this Airman’s actions may indicate that there’s a bigger issue within the military as far as US support for this ongoing operation?

General Pat Ryder (07:18):

Yeah, so the Secretary is following the situation. I know the Air Force has confirmed the Airman’s death. They do plan to provide additional information 24 hours after next of kin notifications are complete. It certainly is a tragic event. We do extend our condolences to the Airman’s family.

In terms of the incident itself, Tara, as you know, the DC Metropolitan Police Department has the lead for responding to questions about that incident. So anything on that, I’d have to refer you to them.

Tara (07:50):

But is the Secretary concerned that this might indicate that there’s a deeper issue, maybe US military personnel being concerned about how weapons and support for Israel is being used on civilians in Gaza?

General Pat Ryder (08:05):

Well, look, from a Department of Defense standpoint, since Hamas’s brutal attacks on October 7th, we’ve been focused on the four key areas that the Secretary set out from the onset. That’s protecting US forces and citizens in the region, supporting Israel’s inherent right to defend itself from terrorist attacks, working closely with Israel to support and secure the release of hostages from Hamas, and ensuring that the crisis, the conflict between Hamas and Israel doesn’t escalate into a broader regional conflict.

And so those objectives are what continue to inform our approach to the situation in the Middle East. And as we’ve talked about before, while our support for Israel’s inherent right to defend itself is ironclad, we’ve also continued to actively communicate our expectations that Israel takes civilian safety and humanitarian assistance account into their operations. You see that incorporated into every conversation the Secretary has with his counterpart in Israel, as well as other US officials. And we expect them to continue to adhere to the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. We’ll continue to do that.


Jennifer (09:11):

General Ryder, what is the name of the person who conducted this investigation? And is it a political appointee?

General Pat Ryder (09:18):

The Director of the Office of Administration and Management is Jennifer Walsh, a career civil servant. So her and a small team of civil servants conducted this review.

Jennifer (09:32):

But it’s independent of the Defense Secretary’s Office? It’s not the office investigating itself?

General Pat Ryder (09:38):


Jennifer (09:38):

Okay. Why was Secretary Hicks not told it would be a good idea to return to DC?

General Pat Ryder (09:45):

Well, as we’ve highlighted previously, and again, the unclassified review talks about this, it was not uncommon under the procedures at the time to not include an explanation for the reason for transfer-of-authority. And again, as this unclassified summary highlights, the Secretary’s team was faced with an unprecedented situation, and so they executed a transfer-of-authority in the same way that they had previously done.

And I would also highlight there were several factors that came into play that the review found limited the Secretary’s staff. First of all, medical privacy laws, to include HIPAA, prevented medical providers from sharing candid information with the Secretary’s staff about his condition. Second, for privacy reasons, his staff were hesitant to prior share information that they did learn. And third, the Secretary’s medical situation was in a state of flux. And so for example, it wasn’t clear in the beginning if this was going to be a one-day visit, a two-day visit. And so we find ourselves several days later in a situation where, again, the Deputy was notified on the 4th of January.

We’ve obviously, and as this summary highlights, realized that there was a process

General Pat Ryder (11:00):

… process improvement required. We took immediate steps on January 8th to fix that. And as you saw most recently when the secretary went to the hospital, of course the reason that he was transferring authorities was communicated.

Jennifer (11:14):

But in terms of HIPAA, it seems like this is a misreading of HIPAA. Did his staff not know he had been moved to the ICU on January 2nd? And how many hours was there a gap between transfer of the authority and when he was in the ICU? How many hours was there no person at the helm of the Defense Department?

General Pat Ryder (11:32):

Yeah. There was no gap in terms of when the transfer of authorities occurred. The secretary’s team recognized that because he was being admitted into the critical care unit and his doctor… First of all, let back up. On January 2nd, the secretary’s doctor recommended that the secretary be moved into the critical care unit to receive a higher level of care. And so given the inability to provide the secretary timely communications in that medical setting, the secretary’s aides agreed that a transfer of authorities to the deputy secretary was necessary. So there was never any gap in authorities or command and control. The transfer of authorities was initiated, the deputy secretary was notified of the transfer. And throughout the duration of the secretary’s care at Walter Reed, either the secretary or the deputy secretary was at all times positioned to perform all the functions and duties of the Secretary of Defense. So again, just to underscore, the secretary and the deputy were fully prepared to support the president as commander-in-chief at all times. Thank you. David.

David (12:48):

So the way you describe that, it’s the secretary’s aides making this decision to turn it over. Was the secretary not in a condition where he could make the decision that, “Oh, I’m going into the critical care unit. I won’t have communications. I’d better turn it over.”

General Pat Ryder (13:10):

Again, the secretary’s aides found themselves in an unprecedented situation. And so once they recognized, again, that the secretary would not have the ability to access communications, they agreed that a transfer of authority to the deputy secretary was necessary. And so, again, they executed that transfer of authority in accordance with the procedures that they had used previously and at that time.

David (13:37):

So, they were making the decision, not the secretary?

General Pat Ryder (13:40):


David (13:42):

And why wasn’t the secretary making the decision?

General Pat Ryder (13:44):

Again, as the secretary was admitted to the critical care unit, the aides recognized that he would not have access to secure comms. And so once there was a recognition that he was going to not have access to secure comms, standard procedure at that time was if the secretary is not going to have access, let’s go ahead and initiate a transfer of authorities. Which they did to the deputy secretary. So, again, no gap in command and control. And the bottom line here is that, to get what you’re asking, we take civilian control of the military incredibly serious. And again, either the secretary or the deputy secretary was at all times positioned to perform all functions and duties of the Secretary of Defense throughout his duration in the hospital. And again, there was no gaps. We’ve obviously learned through this process and have made steps to ensure that processes and procedures are improved, as outlined in the secretary’s memo.

David (14:46):

Including making the decision to transfer? He made the decision to transfer?

General Pat Ryder (14:50):

Again, this was an unprecedented situation and the staff was using the process and procedures that they have employed previously, and again to the best of their abilities in ensuring that there were no gaps in command and control.

David (15:06):

You know you’re not answering that question, right?

General Pat Ryder (15:09):

No, I think I did answer the question.

David (15:10):

No. Whether he was compos mentis, able to make the decision to turn over-

General Pat Ryder (15:17):

He was not unconscious at any point in time. But again, as his doctors made the decision to put him in critical care, as the unclassified summary highlights, his aides recognized the fact that he would not have access to secure comms. So they made the decision to contact the deputy staff and to begin the transfer of authority process.

Speaker 1 (15:40):

One follow-up on the question of time here, and then another question, how long did this process of realization take? Because this points out that when he was in the critical care unit, “Timely secured communications could not be assured.” Was this instantaneous? Because if it wasn’t, it seems there was at least a gap in complete command and control, as you said, there wasn’t.

General Pat Ryder (16:01):

Yeah. There was no gap. Again, the review is pretty clear and everything that they looked at, that at no time was there a gap in command and control. Either the secretary had the authorities as the Secretary of Defense or the deputy secretary had the authorities. And again, the staff was executing this process in accordance with the transfer of authorities procedures that they had used at that time. And so it is crystal clear in this review that there was never any gap.

Speaker 1 (16:30):

Will you be able to tell us how long between him going to critical care and the transfer of authority?

General Pat Ryder (16:34):

I’m not going to get into a specific timeline other than there was no gap and the review made that very clear.

Speaker 1 (16:41):

And then, my other question was quickly, on February 1st, when the secretary came here, he said there was no culture of secrecy. And yet, as you pointed out, this says, “The staff were hesitant to pry or share any information that they did learn.” Isn’t that a culture of secrecy?

General Pat Ryder (16:56):

Yeah. Look, I’m not going to speak for why any individuals did or did not take certain and specific actions. I think we can all agree it is not uncommon for a natural human response when it comes to things like medical care to default to a privacy setting. But the secretary also made clear during that press briefing that he acknowledges we could do better, that we will do better, and that his office has a responsibility to be more transparent. Which is why you’ve seen us significantly change procedures and processes to include implementing the recommendations that have been outlined in this review. Phil.

Phil (17:35):

Just getting back to what David was asking. I’m trying to understand. So the secretary’s in the hospital, I’m guessing he’s being whooshed into the critical care unit. And is it because they couldn’t reach him that he couldn’t be the one to make the decision? I mean, I don’t understand why it is that the Secretary of Defense couldn’t decide, “Okay, my deputy has to take over.” Or was it that he was unwilling to cede command and that his staff intervened against his wishes or?

General Pat Ryder (17:58):

Yeah, Phil, I’d be careful about making assumptions. As I understand it here, as I highlighted, the secretary’s doctors recommended that he go into the critical care unit for a higher level of care. At that point, his staff recognizing that he was going to be in a separate area made the decision that because they would not be able to get to him with secure communications, they did what they typically do in these kinds of situations where he’s not going to have access to comms to say, “Okay, let’s go ahead and initiate this process. Contact the deputy secretary’s staff and start the procedures going.” Taking the initiative, recognizing that the secretary’s focused on getting healthcare right now and they just did what they needed to do. And again, the review highlighted that there can be some process improvements to it. And again, I’d refer you back to that. So they did what they thought they needed to do to ensure that there was no gap in command and control, contacted the deputy secretary’s staff and initiated that process.

Phil (19:05):

I guess what’s weird is that it seems like it’s the staff that decides who’s the Secretary of Defense at that moment and not the Secretary of Defense.

General Pat Ryder (19:14):

Again, unprecedented situation. The secretary’s in the hospital receiving care, his doctors decide that it would make sense for him to go into the critical care unit. The staff, demonstrating initiative, recognized if he’s not going to have access to his comms, let’s go ahead and initiate a transfer of authority. Again, we’ve gone back and looked at this. We recognize that there are areas for process improvement. We’ve implemented those to include ensuring that there are procedures in place for notifying why things are being transferred, who’s making those decisions. And again, we’ve already demonstrated that as evidenced by his most recent hospital visit. Let me-

Phil (19:55):

Just quick follow-up on Tara’s question on the Air Force or more broadly in the military. Have there been other acts of protest? I mean, we know maybe not rising to the level of self-immolation, but have there been other cases?

General Pat Ryder (20:07):

I’m not aware of any. Yeah, I’d have to refer you to the services. Missy.

Phil (20:09):

Thank you.

Missy (20:10):

Hey Pat, I just wanted to ask. On the report , is there anything more that you can tell us or that it delved into or learned about the delay in notifying the White House specifically and why the president’s staff didn’t do that? Because this doesn’t seem to me like it necessarily addresses that. Is it just that this wasn’t a requirement and so then that was part of the established mechanism for TOA? I feel like that’s one thing that isn’t directly addressed, and that seems like it was a significant part of that.

And then I guess my second thing would be, in terms of the questions about the TikTok of the different moments and the questions that Orrin had. If we can get some of that, that would be great. Because for the last five weeks or so, the answer when we asked those kinds of questions has been, “This is under review. I can’t address this because it’s under review.” And now the review is done and it adds no new information for us about the TikTok. And there’s some pretty significant detail. So I don’t know what the mechanism for that would be, but it doesn’t seem like that should be the end of the conversation. Because we’ve been told now for weeks that that’s the reason we can’t get those facts. And I’m making an appeal for more information either as it comes up or we sit down and we get the answers to those in a dedicated session or something like that. But it just feels like if the spirit of transparency is supposed to be forthcoming, then I feel like we need a little bit more.

General Pat Ryder (21:58):

Okay. Thanks, Missy. So

General Pat Ryder (22:00):

… a few things. So in his press briefing earlier this month, Secretary Austin highlighted and took responsibility for the shortcomings when it came to notifying the President and the White House about his cancer diagnosis, and acknowledged that we, the department, can and need to do and will do a better job in terms of notifying the White House. So we’ve learned from that. We’ve made changes to those procedures and those are in place today.

In terms of the transparency as it relates to this review. As the Secretary has said, we are committed to being transparent and providing as much information as possible. This unclassified summary was prepared by the Office of the Director of Administration and Management to capture unclassified information in the classified report. The Secretary came and talked to you earlier this month. He’ll be testifying on the Hill to the HASC later this week.

And as you know, there is an ongoing DOD IG review, which we are supporting and cooperating with fully, some of which may get to some of the questions that you’re asking. But, again, I’d have to refer you to them.

Missy (23:16):

Just a quick follow-up on that. What Secretary Austin said in the briefing was that he did not instruct anyone in his staff-

General Pat Ryder (23:21):

That is correct.

Missy (23:23):

… not to inform the White House. So I still have the question of [inaudible 00:23:26]-

General Pat Ryder (23:25):

What he said was he did not direct anyone on his staff to keep his hospitalization secret.

Missy (23:30):


General Pat Ryder (23:30):

And as we’ve talked about in multiple briefings to include his briefing, to include the findings of this review, there were shortfalls in the processes. And so, again, we have acknowledged those. All eight recommendations that are outlined in the 30-day review are highlighted in the Secretary’s memo, which we provided today to include his direction that we will implement those recommendations.


Nancy (23:58):

I’m sorry, Pat. I want to just follow up on Missy’s question. And with all due respect, I don’t think those questions were answered.

You keep saying that there were shortfalls, that you’ve made determinations. But I think what we’re all saying is I don’t think it’s for the department to make the determinations of what those shortfalls. We are asking for the basic facts about what happened. And what we keep hearing is, you’ve just said, “No, a DOD IG investigation is looking into this, and therefore, we can’t release things.”

I think what we’re all asking for is as precise as possible: who knew what? When? And I think the challenge that we’re all having is what we keep hearing, both in this report and in your comments is that the department have made the determination that had shortfalls. The department has assessed how it’s going to address those. And we’re never given an opportunity to just independently understand what happened. And so, I just think we’re owed the respect to the answer of the question. Why can’t we know? Who knew what? When? And who made the determination of when information will be shared? Because neither your answers, with all due respect, nor did this report answers that.

General Pat Ryder (25:03):

Yes. No, thanks, Nancy. Again, we are working to try to provide you with as much information as possible, to be as transparent as possible about the findings of the review.

Again, I know it doesn’t necessarily address your specific questions, but if we take a step back and look at what this review was focused on, the relevant facts regarding the Secretary’s hospitalization. And the process by which authorities were transferred from the Secretary of Defense to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, recognizing by virtue of the fact that we initiated a review, that there were some process shortfalls that needed to be addressed.

And so, we have tried to provide as much information as possible about why the Secretary was hospitalized, the care that he received, the process that was taken to transfer those authorities, and to ensure that at all times there was a solid chain of command in terms of command and control with the department. But then, importantly, a primary focus of this review was where can we improve process-wise to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. And, again, I know this doesn’t get to your specific questions, but I would just highlight it.

Recently, when the Secretary went back to Walter Reed, you saw those process improvements playing themselves out. It’s not to say that there’s not additional process improvements in the future, but again, we’ll keep you updated on that.

Nancy (26:34):

Who makes the determination on whether the guidelines spelled out are sufficient to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?

General Pat Ryder (26:40):

What do you mean?

Nancy (26:41):

There are eight recommendations. They include various forms of review to be more precise in our guidelines of transfer authority, how it works. Who makes the determination if that’s sufficient or if they’re not followed?

General Pat Ryder (26:54):

Yeah. You’ll see in the memo. It talks about that there will be a regular review process. The Secretary and the Deputy Secretary will be briefed by those responsible for implementing these recommendations.

Nancy (27:05):

But who determines if the implementation is not happening the way it should?

General Pat Ryder (27:08):

Well, the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary.

Nancy (27:10):

Okay. But can I just ask you to take the following questions. When did the Chief of Staff know that the Secretary was hospitalized? Who did the Chief of Staff inform? Who else knew?

General Pat Ryder (27:24):

Well, we already talked about that. She was notified on the 2nd of January.

Nancy (27:30):

By who?

General Pat Ryder (27:30):

It talks about in the unclassified summary.

Nancy (27:34):

Who informed them?

General Pat Ryder (27:34):

The senior military assistant notified the Chief of Staff. And I’d refer you back to the unclassified summary, but it talks about notify the Chief of Staff. She notified the Deputy Secretary staff on the 4th of January.

Let me get to Lara.

Lara (27:49):

Thank you. You keep saying there were shortfalls in the process and the review says there were shortfalls. So is anyone going to be reprimanded or fired? Because something clearly went wrong and I’m just wondering if there will be any repercussions for anyone that failed in their tasks?

General Pat Ryder (28:07):

Yeah, thanks, Lara. As I highlighted, as the Secretary has said, the buck stops with him. He has said and he recognizes that we should have done a much better job notifying those who should have been notified.

I will say that the Secretary is very proud of the team that he has supporting him. When you look at the review, it highlighted that there was no findings of ill will or ill intent or obfuscation but that people, dedicated public servants were doing what they thought was the right thing in order to continue to carry out the DOD’s national security mission. And so I’ll just leave it at that. Thanks.

Then I’ll get to the front here. Megan?

Megan (28:51):

So the privacy concerns here, it seems like there’s maybe a little bit of a misunderstanding about who is bound by HIPAA. The senior military aide was able to tell the Chief of Staff that wasn’t a HIPAA violation so it would stand to reason it wouldn’t be a HIPAA violation to then turn around and tell the Congress or tell the White House.

So my question is what privacy laws are people adhering to? Is there a change of clarification for what these privacy laws actually are? And if all of this was in place and these privacy concerns were still in place, what changed on Thursday when OSD then turned around and said “Okay, now we tell the White House, now we tell Congress, now we tell Pat to put out a statement”? What changed there?

General Pat Ryder (29:34):

Yeah, so to be clear, what I’m citing here is the review’s findings in terms of how we get to where we got. Perceptions of medical laws, perceptions of I need to protect the boss’s privacy. And so again, we’ve learned from that and the Secretary himself has recognized the need for more transparency as it relates to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and his duties. And so again, you’ve seen us since this work very hard, particularly, for example, working with his doctors to try to provide as much information about his medical status and condition when he does go to the hospital. So again, what I’m highlighting here is what the review found in terms of why we got to where we got.

Megan (30:24):

Okay. So there was confusion about privacy and who should tell what, when.

What I also want to lay out here is that it seems like throughout this entire process, at no point did the Secretary think, “Someone should tell my boss I’m not going to work tomorrow or possibly for the rest of the week.” And when he was going to be admitted to the ICU, at no point did he say, “Someone should tell the Deputy Secretary of Defense that I am going to be in the hospital for a while.” Back to David’s point, this was all being made by outside forces.

I know the Secretary has taken responsibility for what he did or didn’t do but I just want to be very clear that at no point did he think, “I should tell my boss I’m not going to work, and I should get my Deputy my authorities because I’m going to be here for a while.”

General Pat Ryder (31:09):

Megan, well, again, I’d, in part, point you back to his comments in his press briefing, where he highlighted the rationale. He wasn’t making excuses, he was just offering an explanation in terms of why he didn’t want to bother the President with that information.

He also, again, did not direct anybody to keep his hospitalization secret, and counted on the staff to do the jobs they do. Again, not making excuses, just offering explanations. In terms of the staff, again, recognizing through past procedures that were in place at the time, when the Secretary doesn’t have access to his secure communications, we’re going to do what we do. Military take initiative, go ahead and start doing this, without necessarily thinking through the broader picture here.

So again, we recognize there were areas for improvement. The Secretary’s memo highlights the unclassified summary highlights where those areas are and the steps that we’re taking to ensure these kinds of things don’t happen again.

Megan (32:10):

The Secretary addressed that he didn’t want to share his cancer diagnosis with President Biden, so as not to burden him, but he didn’t address whether he thought it would make sense for him to have his staff say, “Hey, if you’re looking for the Secretary tomorrow, President Biden, he’s not here.” That’s different than saying he didn’t want to tell him that he had cancer. This is a simple issue of saying, “I’m not going to show up to work tomorrow, I need to let my boss know.” All the rest of us, if we’re not showing up to work, the first thing is you’ve got to make sure your boss knows where you are.

General Pat Ryder (32:44):

Again, look, I’d point you back to the unclassified summary that talks about some of the factors that contributed to that. Again, there was no finding of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate. A lot of this was procedural, a lot of this was, again,

General Pat Ryder (33:00):

Again, recognizing that we were doing things the way we had done them and so we’re working hard to fix that and have already taken significant action to address that. Let me get a couple on the phone here. Let me go to Jeff Schogol.

Jeff Schogol (33:17):

Thank you. If Congress doesn’t pass a spending bill by March 1st or March 8th, at what point do troops stop getting paid? And death gratuities and other benefits for service members who die, would they cease? Thank you.

General Pat Ryder (33:33):

Yeah, thanks Jeff. Obviously, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals to this point. We’ll certainly continue to work closely with Congress and hope that there is a budget passed.

I’d refer you to OMB for any potential ramifications on the US government, but needless to say, we will certainly hope that a budget is passed. Let me go to Courtney.

Courtney (33:59):

When did the SMA know? Because I was under the impression that he found out… Well, I guess, it’s not clear in here. Do you know when he found out?

General Pat Ryder (34:07):

Courtney, I don’t have it right in front of me, but if you go back to the unclassified summary, I believe it highlights when he was notified.

Courtney (34:14):

I don’t think it does, unless I’m missing it. I’m seeing it here, it says, “The secretary and deputy secretaries for team…” Multiple calls. “Secretary’s senior military assistant informed secretary’s chief of staff and chairman of Joint Chiefs about the hospitalization and TOA and he informed Deputy Secretary of Events for public affairs.”

But I don’t see when he was actually notified, because we found out in the day or two after that he did not go to the hospital, that it was the junior military who went to the hospital with Secretary Austin, right?

General Pat Ryder (34:42):

Courtney, what I have in the unclassified summary is what I can provide at this point.

Courtney (34:47):

That seems like a strange when we’re finding out when other people are notified why it’s not included when he was notified.

General Pat Ryder (34:52):

Yeah, I think the key point here is, again, we recognize procedurally process-wise improvements could be made and we are taking steps and have taken steps to improve those processes and procedures.

Courtney (35:06):

And that’s clear. But I think you could understand why that we still have a lot of… The press, we covered this. Well, we still have questions about the timeline here and with all due respect, this answers none of them. I mean, most of the information about the timeline in here we were already aware of. So unless I’m… I don’t see-

General Pat Ryder (35:21):

Well, again, I mean, part of this is the fact that we have been trying to provide as much information as we can as we get it. And this unclassified summary is, again, an effort to try to be as transparent as possible and provide you as much information as possible.

Courtney (35:41):

And I appreciate that. But again, I think the glaring question that remains is, where was the vulnerability here? So who was the person who knew that Secretary Austin was at the hospital, had been taken by ambulance, and didn’t notify whomever it is?

And we still, even with this, we still don’t have an answer to that. And the only thing that we know is that there were some communications personnel and security who went with him. And then fast-forward to the next day when this SMA is notifying people.

General Pat Ryder (36:05):

Yeah. Again, at this point, Courtney, I’m not going to have anything to provide beyond what’s in the review there.

Courtney (36:10):

[inaudible 00:36:11]

Speaker 2 (36:11):

The other thing that the report doesn’t mention is whether or not there was a transfer of authority December 22nd during his hospitalization when, I believe, he was under anesthesia. Can you confirm that there was a transfer?

General Pat Ryder (36:23):

There was there.

Speaker 2 (36:23):

There was.

General Pat Ryder (36:24):

And we have talked about that publicly in the past. It’s also included there in the review, but yes, it was.

Speaker 2 (36:32):

And I’m assuming there is no gap in authority and all of that.

General Pat Ryder (36:34):


Speaker 2 (36:35):

So then my other question is there are several mentions in this and elsewhere about the secretary being online and responding to emails. Was there ever any confusion about who was making decisions when there was a transfer of authority, yet the secretary was online answering emails and working?

General Pat Ryder (36:53):

No. When the transfer of authorities were made from the secretary to the deputy secretary, by account, she’s the acting secretary of defense during that time. So no confusion in terms of who those authorities were with. And then, of course, on the evening of January 5th, the Secretary of Defense resumed those authorities.

Speaker 2 (37:14):

And then one last question. Did she ever, the deputy secretary, ever ask why she was given the responsibilities?

General Pat Ryder (37:20):

Well, look, again, as we’ve talked about, under the procedures at the time, it was not uncommon for transfer authorities to occur without an explanation. And so as we’ve highlighted before, the deputy secretary was not informed of the secretary’s hospitalization until January 4th.

Again, we recognize that there was a process improvement to be made and made that change right at the initiation of this review. So anytime there’s a transfer of authority, now it includes an explanation as to why that transfer has happened. And so that will continue to be the process going forward. I have time for a few more.

Mike (37:59):

You keep saying that this is an unprecedented situation, but then you also keep saying that they did what they typically do. I mean, can you explain?

General Pat Ryder (38:07):

Yeah, absolutely. So just to kind of give you an example, and I know I’ve used this in the past, so just bear with me. But when the secretary was traveling in the Middle East and went to visit the USS Ford and he transferred authorities to the deputy secretary.

So here’s a situation where his staff identifies the fact that, “Hey, the secretary is not going to have access to secure communications.” And so the standard procedure would be to initiate a transfer of authority.

So here’s a situation now where the secretary’s in the hospital, he’s been admitted to the ICU and he’s not going to have access to secure comms. That’s not what you would call a precedented situation. He’s not going to the hospital into a critical care unit on a regular basis, right? And I’m being facetious there. So that’s what I mean by an unprecedented situation.

Mike (39:03):

Another question, the airman, Aaron Bushnell, would he be considered an extremist under the Pentagon’s definition of extremism? Because I know it’s been an issue for the Pentagon, and has he ever come up on the radar at all in the past?

General Pat Ryder (39:20):

Yeah. Mike, at this point, again, like I said earlier, the Air Force has confirmed his death. I’m not able to provide additional details about this particular airman.

The Air Force will after 24 hours from next to kin notification. Again, I would just highlight that it’s certainly a tragic event. And again, our condolences goes to him.

Mike (39:44):

It’s not the Air Force that determines whether or not he’s a quote-unquote, “extremist.” I mean, it’s the Pentagon.

General Pat Ryder (39:48):

Yeah, I’m not going to characterize the situation other than, again, it’s very, very tragic. Hey, welcome back.

Speaker 3 (39:54):

I just wanted to follow up quickly on Mike’s first question. In calling this unprecedented, while this particular case may not have happened, it seems surely the sort of contingency the Secretary of Defense having to be out of pocket for any unforeseen reasons, this predictable one. So you’re saying that there was no policy, no procedures in place in such a contingency that the Commander-in-Chief-

General Pat Ryder (40:17):

No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is… I mean, we certainly have processes and procedures, but this particular situation highlighted that some improvements needed to be made. And so we have embarked on… and this review is a key… A key reason for this review is to go back and look at those processes and procedures and see where we could potentially need to make some changes.

And as I’ve highlighted, the review found eight areas where we can improve and the secretary and the deputy secretary have already implemented two of those and the secretary has directed that the other six recommendations be implemented. And I highlighted some of those in the top. Thanks.

Jennifer (41:05):

Back to the unprecedented nature of this situation and that being the excuse for why people didn’t do certain things. It seems to me if it was unprecedented and you have a defense secretary in an ICU, who was it who called down to the deputy defense secretary who was on a beach in Puerto Rico and not say, “It might be time to come back,” even without violating HIPAA and talking about what the secretary’s condition was? Why didn’t anybody think to say, “It might be a good idea to come back,” given that it was unprecedented?

General Pat Ryder (41:36):

Well, again, Jennifer, I am not going to have much to provide beyond what’s in the unclassified summary other than to say that when the transfer of authority occurred, the secretary’s military aides notified the deputy secretary’s staff that a transfer authority was going to occur.

The deputy secretary had full access to all the comms that she needed to execute her duties as the acting secretary of defense. And again, I won’t go over everything we’ve talked about in the past in terms of, one, she was notified about the secretary’s hospitalization, she took subsequent actions.

But I think the key point here is: at no time was there any gap in command and control of the Department of Defense. Again, as I’ve highlighted, learned from this experience, we’ve made changes already and we’ll continue to make additional changes to ensure that we have better processes and procedures going forward. All right, thank you very much everybody. Appreciate it.

Speaker 4 (42:47):

Hey folks, I know [inaudible 00:42:50] around, so a couple of minutes [inaudible 00:43:06]. Still assessing. I don’t have any specific-

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