US Secretary of Defence returns to work after hospital stay

Pentagon says hospital admission was not disclosed earlier for privacy reasons

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin spent time in hospital for complications following an elective medical procedure, the Pentagon said. AFP
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US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin was expected to return to work on Friday after being admitted to hospital four days earlier for complications from a medical procedure.

His health issues come at a time of rising global tensions, particularly in the Middle East, and his previously undisclosed absence raised questions about transparency at the Pentagon at a critical time.

“On the evening of January 1, Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Austin III was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre for complications following a recent elective medical procedure,” Pentagon Press Secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder said in a statement.

“He is recovering well and is expecting to resume his full duties today.”

The Pentagon Press Association, which represents defence journalists, expressed “outrage” at the Defence Department’s failure to notify the public and the media more quickly about Mr Austin's time in hospital.

“That he has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre for four days and the Pentagon is only now alerting the public late on a Friday evening is an outrage,” the PPA's board of directors said.

“It falls far below the normal disclosure standards that are customary by other federal departments when senior officials undergo medical procedures or are temporarily incapacitated.”

Maj Gen Ryder told the Associated Press that Mr Austin's absence had not been disclosed earlier in the week because of privacy reasons and due to it being an “evolving” medical situation.

“At all times, the Deputy Secretary of Defence was prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary, if required,” Maj Gen Ryder said.

The PPA said that as the nation’s senior defence official, Mr Austin has no claim to privacy in a situation like this.

“At a time when there are growing threats to US military service members in the Middle East and the US is playing national security roles in the wars in Israel and Ukraine, it is particularly critical for the American public to be informed about the health status and decision-making ability of its top defence leader,” the PPA said.

During Mr Austin's absence, the US military conducted a strike on a base in eastern Baghdad, which killed a pro-Iranian commander who had co-ordinated attacks on American forces in the region.

However, US Central Command activities in Iraq and Syria do not necessarily require Mr Austin's approval.

The US is also managing its support for Israel in its military operations on Gaza and Ukraine's defence against Russia, as well as fending off Houthi rebel attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.

Charles Lister, senior fellow and director of the Syria and countering terrorism and extremism programmes at the Middle East Institute, posted on X that it showed “a deeply concerning lack of openness”.

Updated: January 06, 2024, 3:41 AM