Politics

Defense secretary faces scrutiny for not disclosing hospitalization

The Pentagon stated on Sunday that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin remains hospitalized but is "recovering well and in good spirits."

Defense secretary faces scrutiny for not disclosing hospitalization
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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The fallout continues for U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin after he failed to disclose his hospitalization for three days last week to President Joe Biden and other senior officials. Even Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was left in the dark about Austin's hospitalization when she took over his duties.

Austin's hospitalization was only made public by the Pentagon on Friday, Jan. 5, announcing in a statement that Austin had been admitted on Jan. 1 to "Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for complications following a recent elective medical procedure," adding that he was recovering and that Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks "was prepared to act for and exercise the power of the secretary if required."

Pentagon Press Secretary Patrick Ryder told CNN Sunday that Austin transferred "certain operational responsibilities that require constant secure communications capabilities" to Hicks on Jan. 2, while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico, but ultimately was not informed of Austin's hospitalization until January 4th. Ryder told CNN that it's "not uncommon" for the secretary to transfer responsibilities without giving a reason.

However, lack of communication from Austin and the Pentagon has left top officials flagging serious national security concerns.

"This, the handling of this by the Secretary of Defense, is totally unacceptable," former Vice President Mike Pence said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. "At a time when we have allies at war in Eastern Europe and here in Israel, that the leader of America's military at the Pentagon would be out of commission for a number of days, and the president of the United States didn't know about it. I think it was a dereliction of duty."

U.S. Senator Roger Wicker responded to the news on X, writing, "I am glad to hear @SecDef is in improved condition, and I wish him a speedy recovery. However, the fact remains that the Department of Defense deliberately withheld the Secretary of Defense's medical condition for days. That is unacceptable."

In a statement Saturday, Secretary Austin addressed the backlash, writing, "I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better. But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure."

However, Representative James Clyburn from South Carolina says that while Austin has the right to HIPAA privacy like every other American, he's got a duty to carry it out.

"He does have a duty to keep the public informed, and I don't know if it was him or somebody inside of the military establishment that decided to do it this way, but I'm sure he will do a little bit better going forward," Clyburn said.

A senior Biden administration official told NBC that President Biden and Secretary Austin had a phone call Saturday night—their first since his hospitalization—adding that "it was a warm conversation" and that the president is looking forward to Austin's return to the Pentagon.

On Sunday, the Pentagon revealed additional information on Austin's hospitalization.   

In a statement obtained by the Associated Press, the Pentagon explained that following a medical procedure on Dec. 22 and a day at home, Austin was admitted to intensive care on Jan. 1 "when he began experiencing severe pain." However, the statement did not specify the nature of the procedure.

The Pentagon also stated on Sunday that Austin remains hospitalized but is "recovering well and in good spirits." 

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin 'on the mend' after hospital stay
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin 'on the mend' after hospital stay

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin 'on the mend' after hospital stay

Senior administration officials at the White House and members of Congress were unaware of Austin's hospital stay for days.

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