Questions Arise Over 'Evolving Situation' With Defense Secretary

Lloyd Austin's hospitalization on Jan. 1 for complications following surgery was kept quiet
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 6, 2024 9:30 AM CST
Questions Arise Over 'Evolving Situation' With Defense Secretary
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attends an ASEAN meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Nov. 16.   (Willy Kurniawan/Pool Photo via AP)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is already home after being hospitalized most of the week—except almost no one knew he'd been hospitalized in the first place. The Pentagon announced Friday that Austin, 70, checked into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on New Year's Day, after he suffered complications following a recent elective surgery, per the Military Times. Air Force Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement that Austin has since been discharged and had been set to once more assume his full duties on Friday night. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks had filled in for Austin where needed in his absence, Ryder noted.

The Washington Post, which reports Austin had just returned from a trip to the Middle East, including Israel, in late December, notes it's not clear what kind of surgery the defense secretary had, what the complications were, or why his hospital stay was kept so hush-hush. A reporters group dedicated to covering Pentagon news was miffed that it wasn't kept in the loop. "The fact that he has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for four days and the Pentagon is only now alerting the public late on a Friday evening is an outrage," the Pentagon Press Association said in a letter to Ryder and another official involved with Defense Department PR, per the AP.

The organization continued: "At a time when there are growing threats to US military service members in the Middle East and the US is playing key 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 defense leader." The group noted that the public should be kept aware of any Cabinet members who end up in the hospital, are administered anesthesia, or otherwise have to hand off their duties to underlings, even if only for a brief time.

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"This has been the practice even up to the president's level. As the nation's top defense leader, Secretary Austin has no claim to privacy in this situation," the letter said, per the Post. Ryder, who said Austin is "recovering well," responded by calling it an "evolving situation," noting that the Defense Department "had to consider a number of factors, including medical and personal privacy issues." The White House is keeping mum on when and how it found out about Austin's hospitalization, directing all questions to the Pentagon. (More Lloyd Austin stories.)

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