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Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighs in on Secretary Austin

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Three and a half days. That is how long it took the Pentagon to inform the White House that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had been hospitalized on New Year's Day. Austin, who was admitted following complications from an elective procedure, apologized over the weekend, saying, quote, "I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed." Well, I want to bring in someone with firsthand knowledge of the challenges and the protocols of the role. Leon Panetta served as President Obama's secretary of defense. Secretary Panetta, welcome - good to speak with you again.

LEON PANETTA: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: How big a deal is this?

PANETTA: Well, it certainly raises concerns because it relates to something that is extremely important, which is the chain of command that deals with our national security. And obviously, the secretary of defense is a critical part of that chain of command in dealing with defense issues and nuclear issues and other areas related to our national security. So when the secretary is, for any reason, incapacitated, that raises a lot of concerns about who should be in touch and who should be in control of the issues that he normally deals with.

KELLY: I mean, can you think of anything like this happening in past? Is there precedent for a cabinet secretary to check into the hospital for days, including being admitted to intensive care, and not tell the White House or Congress or the Pentagon press corps or, apparently, most of his colleagues at the Pentagon?

PANETTA: Yeah. It's - look. There's no question that Lloyd Austin has done a great job as secretary of defense at a critical time - a lot of tough issues to deal with. And I'm sure he's been on the road a lot dealing with our allies. Having said that, there's also no question that a serious mistake was made here, particularly - not just in not informing the public but, in particular, not informing the president or the national security team for a number of days. I think he was in the hospital on New Year's Day...

KELLY: Yeah.

PANETTA: ...And did not inform the president or the national security adviser until Thursday. That raises serious concerns. Now, he's acknowledged the problem, taken full responsibility for it, which is something new in Washington to have somebody actually take responsibility for screwing up.

KELLY: But - forgive my jumping in.

PANETTA: And so I do think...

KELLY: Yeah. But how's...

PANETTA: ...He intends to do the right thing.

KELLY: How's it normally work? I mean, when you were defense secretary, if you had needed to go to the hospital for whatever reason, what's the checklist?

PANETTA: Well, the first call that would be made normally is to the chief of staff, to the president, to inform him that, you know, for some reason, the secretary would be incapacitated and that my deputy would be responsible for running the Department of Defense. And also, you know, I can remember, as former chief of staff to the president, that we had a rule in the Clinton administration that any cabinet member who was going to be incapacitated was to inform the White House as quickly as possible so that we were aware of it.

KELLY: OK. I tweeted this morning about the situation, and I had a lot of people writing me back, pushing back, saying, look. The defense secretary has a right to privacy like anyone else. This was an elective medical procedure. It's none of our business. Secretary Panetta, is that true? Or is the standard different for a defense secretary?

PANETTA: Well, when you're secretary of defense, yes, you do have your privacy. And I certainly respect Lloyd Austin because he is a private person. But at the same time, he is a public person, being secretary of defense, and carries responsibilities that are critical to our country. And for that reason, you do have a responsibility to inform certainly the president and the national security team when, in any way, you're going to be incapacitated. And that's the greatest failing here. You know, I understand the public, you know, may very well want to protect his privacy in some way. But when it comes to the president and the national security team, they are responsible for protecting our country and should be informed if anything is happening to the secretary of defense. That's a requirement related to our national security.

KELLY: What are your questions at this point about the situation?

PANETTA: Well, you know, I think, you know - I know that right now the reasons for his being hospitalized have not been made public. But ultimately, the truth comes out. My experience in Washington tells me that in the end, the truth will come out. And it's probably better to come from him. I mean, the reality he - is that he was in intensive care. He had to take an ambulance in order to go to Walter Reed. He was hospitalized, continues to be hospitalized. So there's obviously something that is wrong here. And ultimately, I think the public needs to know once he leaves the hospital that his physical condition is one that will not interfere with his duties as secretary of defense.

KELLY: Yeah. You're getting at something that's been on my mind, which is what to make of the fact that we still don't know what is or was wrong with him - and this after he apologized and promised better transparency.

PANETTA: Yeah. And as I said, I think that, while he has taken responsibility, I think he does understand that he should have done a better job in informing not just the public but obviously his superiors, the president, national security team, etc. That ultimately - in order to really be able to get past this situation, I think he's going to have to say what the problem was and the fact that he is well-heeled and can assume his responsibilities again. I think the country needs to know that the secretary of defense is not going to be incapacitated again.

KELLY: Does it raise questions for you that his deputy, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico, was told she would have to temporarily take over but she was not told why?

PANETTA: Yeah, that's a concern. You know, I think if the deputy is suddenly alerted that she's going to take over the responsibilities, I'm assuming that she assumed that it involved him trying to take some time from the job, and that's understandable. But whatever the reason is, I think the deputy ought to know the reasons because the deputy now is going to be assuming some very important responsibilities, particularly now. You know, we're dealing with a war in Ukraine. We're dealing with a war in Israel. We're dealing with terrorist threats all over the Middle East. It is really important that the secretary has to be on top of that.

KELLY: Right.

PANETTA: And the deputy has to be on top of that as well.

KELLY: That is former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Secretary Panetta, great to speak with you. Thank you.

PANETTA: Good to be with you.

KELLY: And we wish Secretary Austin a full and speedy recovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX VAUGHN SONG, "SO BE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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