6 June 2024

Washington, United States – US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday accepted responsibility for failing to disclose a recent hospitalization, following reports that even top White House officials and President Joe Biden were in the dark that he was ill and unable to carry out his duties.

The Pentagon waited until Friday evening to announce that Austin, 70, had been hospitalized four days prior “for complications following a recent elective medical procedure” — a breach of standard protocol at a time when the United States is embroiled in the Middle East crisis.

NBC News reported Austin was in the intensive care unit for four days, and remained at the hospital on Saturday.

“I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” Austin said in a statement.

“But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”

He added that he would be “returning to the Pentagon soon,” thanking the doctors and staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for their care.

Austin’s hospitalization comes with tensions soaring in the Middle East as a result of the Israel-Hamas war, with Iran-backed forces in Yemen striking shipping lanes while others in Iraq and Syria are attacking US troops with rockets and drones.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was prepared to step in during Austin’s illness, and made some routine decisions on his behalf during the time, a Defense Department spokesperson told AFP.

Politico was the first of several media outlets to report that Austin had been in the hospital for three days before Pentagon officials told National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other top White House officials.

Sullivan then informed Biden, the outlet said. It also reported that Congress found out about Austin’s hospitalization 15 minutes before Friday evening’s public statement.

The National Security Council on Saturday referred questions to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

US Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, demanded an explanation.

“The Secretary of Defense 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. If this report is true, there must be consequences for this shocking breakdown,” he said in a statement Saturday.

The Pentagon Press Association, comprised of journalists who cover the Defense Department, expressed “significant concerns” over the apparent cover-up.

“The public has a right to know when US Cabinet members are hospitalized, under anesthesia or when duties are delegated as a result of any medical procedure,” the group said in a letter to the Pentagon press secretary.

Agence France-Presse