Defence secretary keeps White House in dark about hospitalisation

It took the Pentagon three and a half days to inform the White House that defence secretary Lloyd Austin had been hospitalised on New Year’s Day following complications from an elective procedure, two US officials said Saturday. The extraordinary breach of protocol – Austin is in charge of the country’s 1.4 million active-duty military at a time when the wars in Gaza and Ukraine have dominated the American national security landscape – has baffled officials across the government, including at the Pentagon.
Senior defence officials say Austin did not inform them until Thursday that he had been admitted to the ICU at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. The Pentagon then informed the White House. The Pentagon’s belated notification, first reported by Politico, confounded White House officials, one Biden administration official said.
On Saturday night, Austin issued a mea culpa. “I recognise I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed,” he said in a statement. “I commit to doing better.” Austin added, “This was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decision about disclosure.” President Biden and Austin spoke by telephone Saturday night, a US official said. Another official said that the president has full confidence in his defence secretary. It was late Friday when Austin’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, put out a statement to the news media that the secretary had been hospitalised. In the statement, he said the defence secretary, who is 70, was “recovering well and is expecting to resume his full duties today.”
Pentagon officials had to call deputy defence secretary Kathleen Hicks while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico to handle affairs while Austin was hospitalised, a defence department official said on Saturday, confirming a report by NBC News. The department said on Friday that Hicks had assumed Austin’s duties temporarily. The secretary has delegated authority to her in the past, when he has been on vacation and off the grid.
But just Thursday, while Austin was out of action, the US launched a retaliatory strike in Baghdad that killed a militia leader who Pentagon officials said was responsible for recent attacks on American troops in the region. A Biden administration official said that the head of US Central Command, Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, already had authorisation for the strike.
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas and a member of the Armed Services Committee, demanded on Saturday that Austin explain why he had not immediately informed the White House that he had been hospitalised. “The secretary of defence is the key link in the chain of command between the president and the uniformed military, including the nuclear chain of command, when the weightiest of decisions must be made in minutes,” Cotton said. “If this report is true, there must be consequences for this shocking breakdown.”
Criticism was growing in other quarters as well. “The public has a right to know when US cabinet members are hospitalised, under anesthesia or when duties are delegated as the result of any medical procedure,” the Pentagon Press Association said. “As the nation’s top defence leader, secretary Austin has no claim to privacy in this situation.”
Austin is notoriously private and keeps a low profile. It has been more than a year since he appeared at the lectern in the Pentagon briefing room to address members of the media, and he has been known to sometimes avoid reporters who travel with him overseas.

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