Lloyd Austin went to hospital for elective surgery on January 1 but the White House was not notified.
United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said he takes “full responsibility” for the secrecy after it emerged that he had been in hospital since last Monday and that many top White House officials including President Joe Biden were unaware.
Austin, who is 70, was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on January 1 for what the Pentagon announced on Friday were “complications following a recent elective medical procedure”.
The secrecy surrounding Austin’s hospital admission is a breach of standard protocol and comes amid the Israel-Gaza war and heightened tension in the Middle East.
Austin sits just below Biden at the top of the chain of command of the US military and is required to be available at a moment’s notice to respond to any manner of national security crisis.
“I recognise I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” Austin said in a statement on Saturday evening.
“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”.
Politico was the first of several media outlets to report that Austin had been in hospital for three days before Pentagon officials told National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other top White House officials about the situation.
Sullivan then informed Biden, the outlet said. It also reported that Congress found out about Austin’s admission to hospital 15 minutes before Friday evening’s public statement.
The defence department has said Austin resumed “full duties” from his hospital bed on Friday evening.
The Pentagon Press Association, whose members are journalists covering the defence department, criticised the secrecy surrounding Austin’s condition, saying he was a public figure who had no claim to medical privacy in such a situation.
It also noted that even US presidents disclose when they must delegate duties due to medical procedures.
“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 association wrote in a letter to the Pentagon on Friday.
Other senior US officials, including Attorney General Merrick Garland, have been more transparent about hospital stays. Garland’s office informed the public a week in advance and outlined when he would return to work when the attorney general was admitted for a routine medical procedure in 2022.
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