This appeared in my email inbox on Monday. I’m asking Paradigm Press to retroactively authorize the reprinting of this email and the article that follows it.
Seven Days in January
Editor’s note: The political establishment was rocked recently when it was revealed that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spent days in the hospital — and the president didn’t even know it. What’s going on? Our own Byron King is a former aide to the Chief of Naval Operations, so he knows something about the chain of command. Today, Byron weighs in.
You’ve seen the news, right? Before the weekend, U.S. and British forces (but mostly U.S.) just fired shots at targets in Yemen, in reply to Houthi attacks on Western shipping in the Red Sea.
Cruise missiles, they say. And air strikes. Hmm. We’ll see.
First thing to understand: Whatever you read, in whatever source, We Know Nothing!
That is, whatever the Pentagon press releases might have said the day after, it’s all based on initial field reports which are almost always confused and/or wrong.
Cynical, yes. But realistic, based on many years of watching things like this. Meanwhile, who is running the Defense Department?
Because in the first week of January the Secretary of Defense (SecDef), Lloyd Austin, went missing for over four days. He was just plain out of contact, hors de combat.
And the missing-man story didn’t break until about a week into events, via a Pentagon press office data dump after 5:00 pm on a Friday evening, January 5. Nothing to see here, right? Move along, eh?
Well, no; this is not how to run the Department of Defense. And I know a few things about that because, long ago, I served on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. And having been there and done that, I know how things are supposed to happen at very high levels.
In this case, the honorable SecDef is the number two guy in the U.S. military chain of command, right after the Commander in Chief, namely the U.S. President.
SecDef plays a critical role in what’s called “continuity of government” (COG). If the president isn’t around to give Big Orders (if you know what I mean), if not to push The Button (ditto), then the authority passes to Mr. SecDef himself.
And yet, for the better part of a week early this year, the top man of the nation’s war machine just plain dropped off the scope. How does that happen? Indeed, what happened?
Let’s dig in, and be forewarned: it helps to understand that there’s a lot of smoke, mirrors and lying going on.
for The Daily Reckoning
Who’s Running the Pentagon?
By Byron King
Now that it’s all public information and behind us, SecDef says he’s sorry. He didn’t mean to go shadowy on you. It’s just that he’s a “private person,” or so some say.
That, and the man takes “full responsibility,” as political climbers do when they feel confident that there will be no personal blowback. He promises that he’ll do better in the future.
The basics are that, just before Christmas Lloyd Austin, 70 years old and a retired Army general, went into a military hospital for “elective surgery.” Well, that’s how to frame it if you want to call a procedure for prostate cancer elective.
Post-op, he went home to rest and recover. But a few days later he was in great distress with medical complications.
On January 1, New Years Day, Austin summoned an ambulance and returned to the military hospital, where he was immediately admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). He had serious internal problems, and the docs and staff took care of him. [Note: for their excellent medical efforts, we commend the docs and staff.]
Who Didn’t Know, and When Didn’t They Know It?
“Nobody knew” about SecDef Austin and his serious medical issues, goes the story, although that’s absolutely, definitely, beyond shadow-of-doubt not true as I’ll detail below.
Although yes, I kind of believe the part about how President Joe Biden didn’t know; obvious reasons on that one. I suppose I can believe that the Deputy SecDef, Kathleen Hicks, didn’t know either. After all, she took a vacation to faraway, sunny Puerto Rico, not exactly a trip that one might take when the boss is ill and incapacitated.
And maybe I can even believe that SecDef Austin’s Chief of Staff didn’t know because she was sick at home with Covid. Yeah, sure. Why bother telling the laid-up COS that the boss is in the ICU, right? Oh, wait. Hmmm…
So far, much of the retelling of this tale has to do with who didn’t know what, and how late after the fact they found out. For example, we are told that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff learned about SecDef’s medical issues four days after the ICU event; National Security Adviser learned on Day Five; etc.
Indeed, there’s now something of a political competition within Washington. Characteristically, inside the Beltway people vie with each other for bragging rights, in this case about who didn’t know about SecDef, and how late after the fact they learned the news. And reading about it in The Washington Post doesn’t count.
But that’s not the real story. As in, it’s not a question of, “Who was in the dark?” and “When did they learn the news?”
No! That’s entirely the wrong way to approach this matter.
Here’s the REAL Story
The real story of the missing SecDef is that the office itself is a critical position of immense authority within the U.S. government. The person who holds that particular job occupies a key point in command and control of American military power, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to positive control over nuclear weapons.
Whoever the SecDef may be — Lloyd Austin, or anyone else at any other time, ever — the job involves being closely watched and tracked all the time, everywhere, every day, 24/7/365.
If nothing else, the job of SecDef is a fishbowl. The guy in that chair is at the center of a really big bullseye. While holding the title, one is subject to constant observation, security and scrutiny.
Someone knows (actually, many someones know) exactly where you are at every moment.
Asleep or awake, eating breakfast, or going to the men’s room, someone is watching you.
All of this comes with accepting a top-level job like this, namely a senior cabinet position with control of massive weapons and a 50-yard-line seat overseeing that COG idea.
When one becomes SecDef, every move you make is monitored and tracked. Every letter and email; every phone call; every visitor; every trip in every vehicle; every meal; going to the gym; whatever. And there are extensive records, enough to fill archives.
To expand on this a bit more, here’s why that SecDef job comes with such restrictions and limits to one’s scope of activities. Because if you’re SecDef and the fateful signal arrives about, say, an attack on the U.S., then the handlers bundle you away.
That is, someone gets a flash-message, and off you go in a black SUV; or down the magic StarTrek elevator to the super-deep bunker; or to the helicopter that races you to the big jet whose engines are already spooled up; or to wherever else might be your post at that moment.
In other words, when you are SecDef your life is no longer your own. You hold a job that involves control over supreme levels of state military power. Your privacy is gone. You are deep within a circle of observation and accountability.
How Deep? Very Deep
Indeed, SecDef is surrounded not just by the typical, everyday security detail, meaning those very fit people with short haircuts, sunglasses, and bulges under their well-tailored suit jackets.
But the guy is also tracked by dozens of other people and offices across the national security state, both defense and intelligence as well as “other” players (I’ll leave it at that).
The bottom line is that keeping track of SecDef is a task that runs broad and deep. And again, it’s that COG mission-thing, always to have a “decider” in place to make Big Decisions, to borrow from former President George W. Bush.
There’s another angle to all this as well, which most outsiders don’t really appreciate. That is, yes there’s super-high-level security and confidentiality around the comings, goings and work of the SecDef in general. But there’s also a quite a bit of crisp and thorough communication across agencies about what’s happening with the guy, especially the status and whereabouts of this one particular person.
It may seem contradictory that SecDef is surrounded by an aura of secrecy and security, but he’s also center stage for the biggest (classified) show in town.
Well, there’s actually a good reason for this broad scope of oversight. If, say, a missile warning pops, or another 9/11 event occurs, or maybe if you have to approve shooting missiles at Yemen, the idea is to wrap up the SecDef instantly into the live-action mode, and start the response sequences. And many, many, many agencies of government have a deep stake in these responses.
Who Knew? Many Knew
With the foregoing in mind, I hope you understand why you should not believe for even one second that “nobody knew” about Austin going to the hospital.
Right away, we have the obvious point that SecDef’s security and personal detail knew he was ill, and holed up in the ICU. Because it’s their one and only job to keep eyeballs on the man and they are not blind.
Meanwhile, hospital staff certainly knew that SecDef was a patient. People in charge of physical security and force protection had to know that someone very important was behind the wire, and it’s difficult to hide a SecDef entourage.
Then we have medical personnel like attending staff and doctors, plus admin people all the way up to the head honcho in the hospital front office.
As to those top dogs in the hospital, yes, absolutely they knew and don’t try to blow smoke about it. Because if you command the facility where Sec Def is under treatment — definitely when he’s in your ICU! — you simply must be made aware of what’s going on. Indeed, the top people surely knew about SecDef from the moment he crossed the curb from highway to driveway, to the minute that Elvis left the building, to borrow a phrase.
Did SecDef Shut Down His Own System?
Here’s the takeaway. There is NO WAY that the overall COG system would not have known about SecDef Austin’s medical issues, and reported it all throughout a broad chain, albeit in classified communications. The system is designed to gather and transmit exactly this kind of critical information to key people.
Then again, perhaps the SecDef himself actively shut down the reporting system. And on that point, the reaction ought to be… WHOA!
That is, the tracking system for SecDef is designed from the inside-out to ensure COG, meaning active, direct command and control in the event of attack on the nation. The wiring diagrams are broad and long. Because somebody must be in position and in charge, and many other people must be plugged in.
Now, consider all of this in light of the “nobody knew” story, as it first came out. How could that happen? Because that is absolutely NOT supposed to happen.
So, did Austin order the standard reporting system to shut down? Why would he do that? For the sake of his personal privacy? Or for any other reason? What other reason?
And it gets worse, because it appears that many people in the chain of command followed those orders to look the other way and not report on Austin’s condition and whereabouts. If that’s the case, then heads must roll.
If SecDef Lloyd Austin values his privacy so much, he should resign. Doubtless, the Defense Department will give him a splendid retirement ceremony, complete with the Army Band.
And now we know something else, too: that the system of accountability to ensure constant, seamless, effective military command and control has been corrupted and, in essence, turned into a personality-driven bureaucracy.
Okay, yeah. Maybe we always suspected that things could be sloppy in high places, but now we’ve just seen it play out.
for The Daily Reckoning
Thank you for reading The Daily Reckoning! We greatly value your questions and comments. Please send all feedback to [email protected].
Byron King is a Harvard-trained geologist who has traveled to every U.S. state and territory and six of the seven continents. He has been interviewed by dozens of major print and broadcast media outlets including The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, MSN Money, MarketWatch, Fox Business News, and PBS Newshour.