US government faces criticism over secrecy surrounding defense secretary’s hospitalization

Lloyd Austin’s mysterious hospitalization was due to an infection following an operation to treat prostate cancer, as revealed by Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during the 10th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia in November 2023.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during the 10th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia in November 2023.WILLY KURNIAWAN / POOL (EFE)

The U.S. government is facing a barrage of criticism after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization was kept secret for days, even from the White House. The controversy has prompted a government-wide review of protocols in place to prevent such failures, and the Pentagon is scrutinizing its own procedures following the extraordinary lapse, which left even Austin’s top deputies unaware of his condition for days. Senior congressional Republicans are investigating whether Austin ignored legal requirements to inform Congress, and Biden administration officials are privately fuming about Austin’s lack of disclosure, believing it to be an unforced error that undercuts the president’s message of restoring competency through his administration.

The head of the Pentagon has prostate cancer and his admission to hospital on January 1, which he concealed for three days — keeping the information even from U.S. President Joe Biden — was due to an infection he suffered after undergoing a surgical operation related to the disease on December 22. That’s according to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where Austin remains admitted. The White House acknowledged that Biden had not known the nature of his defense secretary’s illness until now.

“Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning, and the president was informed immediately after we were,” White House spokesman John Kirby said.

For the past week, the Pentagon and Austin have been criticized for not immediately communicating the new about the defense secretary’s condition. Austin is the second in the U.S. military chain of command. second only to Biden himself. Although the four-star general was admitted to hospital on Monday, January 1, he only notified the White House three days later. His second-in-command, Kathleen Hicks, who is in Puerto Rico, assumed some of his duties, but was also not immediately aware of the situation.

The first public statement about the hospitalization was released on Friday, January 5. At that time, the Pentagon said that the operation had been an “elective medical procedure,” in other words, it was not medically necessary. Doctors from Walter Reed on Tuesday disclosed that Austin had been in hospital since December 22, and did not describe the surgery as elective.

Despite the lapse in communication, the White House said on Tuesday that it retains its confidence in Austin, an introverted man who does not like to divulge the details of his private life. President Biden plans to keep Austin as the head of the Pentagon at least until the end of his first term next January, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday.

“It’s prostate cancer and the associated procedures are obviously deeply personal,” said Pentagon spokesman General Pat Ryder, in an attempt to justify the decision not to communicate the defense secretary’s health condition.

The medical report from Walter Reed noted an improvement in Austin’s health. “His infection has cleared. He continues to make progress and we anticipate a full recovery, although this can be a slow process,” the center said in a statement distributed by the Pentagon.

As a result of his cancer treatment, Austin suffered severe abdominal, hip and leg pain, according to the Walter Reed National Medical Center. After being diagnosed with a urinary tract infection, he was admitted to the intensive care unit on January 2. “Further evaluation revealed abdominal fluid collections impairing the function of his small intestines. This resulted in the back up of his intestinal contents which was treated by placing a tube through his nose to drain his stomach,” explained the statement, signed by trauma medical director John Maddox and Dr. Gregory Chesnut, from the hospital’s Center for Prostate Disease Research.

In response to the criticism, the Biden administration has announced a review of communication protocols for cases of illness. According to Kirby, government representatives are “expected” to be notified of a hospitalization, but the presidential office currently only carries out a cursory check each morning, which is limited to confirming which city or the country they are located.

The Pentagon has also announced a 30-day review of its own procedures. That review, according to Ryder, will help determine how the notification process can be improved and what timeline is most appropriate to inform the public. “The bottom line is we know we can do better, and we will do better in the future,” said the general.

In Austin’s case, the lack of transparency has been particularly striking since, as the military’s second-in-command, he must be available at any time in the event of a threat to national security. This hospitalization comes as the United States is closely monitoring events in Ukraine, where Russia has stepped up its offensive, and surveying the situation in the Middle East, where the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza threatens to spread throughout the region.

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