Lloyd Austin: Backlash grows after Pentagon kept US defence secretary's surgery a secret

Politicians from both parties alarmed by lack of transparency around the official's recent admission to hospital

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin.  Reuters
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Questions mounted over the state of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin's health on Monday, after the Pentagon failed for days to inform the public about his admission to hospital last week.

Mr Austin, 70, was taken to hospital on January 1 after complications from a recent elective medical procedure.

The Pentagon only told the public on January 5, at the end of a week in which the US conducted a strike in Iraq and tension soared in the Middle East.

“I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” Mr Austin said at the weekend.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday that US President Joe Biden “respects the fact that Secretary Austin took ownership for the lack of transparency”.

“There's an expectation that when a cabinet official becomes hospitalised, that will be notified up the chain of command … Our main focus right now is on Secretary Austin's health and making sure that he gets all the care and support that he needs to to fully recover,” Mr Kirby said.

But the Pentagon on Monday declined to reveal what operation Mr Austin had, only detailing that he was no longer in the intensive care unit.

Pentagon Press Secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder said Mr Austin was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in good condition.

"He is recovering well and in good spirits," Maj Gen Ryder general said in a statement.

"He is no longer in the intensive care unit and is recovering in a more private area of the hospital. He continues to experience discomfort but his prognosis is good."

Mr Austin's Chief of Staff Kelly Magsamen on Monday directed a formal review of the matter to be completed within 30 days.

In a weekend statement, Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate armed services committee, said the episode “further erodes trust in the Biden administration, which has repeatedly failed to inform the public in a timely fashion about critical events such as the Chinese spy balloon and the withdrawal from Afghanistan”.

The leaders of the House armed services committee, the Congressional group that oversees the Department of Defence, released a bipartisan statement.

“While we wish Secretary Austin a speedy recovery, we are concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary’s condition was handled,” the statement from Republican Mike Rogers and Democrat Adam Smith read.

“Transparency is vitally important. Secretary Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible.”

Mr Austin returned to his duties on Friday. He initially had a medical procedure on December 22 but went into intensive care on January 1 after experiencing severe pain.

The White House confirmed that Mr Biden had not been informed. That failure of transparency runs against standard practice with the president and his senior cabinet members.

On Sunday, the Pentagon said Mr Austin remained in hospital at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre, where he “has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor [the Pentagon's] day-to-day operations worldwide”.

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.

And former president Donald Trump, who is likely to clinch the Republican nomination to challenge Mr Biden in the 2024 election, said on Sunday night that Mr Austin should be fired for a "dereliction of duty."

"He has been missing for one week, and nobody, including his boss, Crooked Joe Biden, had a clue as to where he was, or might be," Mr Trump wrote on Truth Social.

Maj Gen Ryder said the National Security Council and Deputy Secretary of Defence Kathleen Hicks were not notified until January 4 that Mr Austin had been in hospital since January 1, AP reported.

Mr Austin has no intention of resigning over the ordeal, Maj Gen Ryder told reporters on Monday, and the White House said there were "no plans for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job".

Updated: January 09, 2024, 7:05 AM