Defense Secretary Lloyd Austinsince Monday due to complications following a minor elective medical procedure, his press secretary said Friday, in the Defense Department’s first acknowledgment that Austin had been admitted five days earlier to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
A Biden administration official told CBS News Saturday that the National Security Council, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, was not informed Austin was in the hospital until Thursday morning.
A Senate aide also confirmed Saturday to CBS News that the Senate Armed Services Committee was not notified about Austin’s hospitalization until Friday evening.
A senior House Armed Services Committee aide told CBS News Saturday that “the committee was notified before the press notification went out” about Austin Friday.
In a statement released Saturday afternoon, Austin wrote that he is “on the mend” and looks “forward to returning to the Pentagon soon.”
“I also understand the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better. But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder had said Friday that it was not clear when Austin would be released from the hospital, but said the secretary was “recovering well.”
A White House official told CBS News that President Biden and Austin spoke Saturday evening, calling it a “warm conversation,” and adding that the president “absolutely has full confidence in Secretary Austin.”
The Pentagon’s failure to disclose Austin’s hospitalization is counter to normal practice with the president and other senior U.S. officials and Cabinet members. The Pentagon Press Association, which represents media members who cover the Defense Department, sent a letter of protest to Ryder and Chris Meagher, the assistant defense secretary for public affairs.
“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 PPA said in its letter. “At a time when there are growing threats to U.S. military service members in the Middle East and the U.S. 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.”
When Attorney General Merrick Garland went in for a routine medical procedure in 2022, his office informed the public a week in advance and outlined how long he was expected to be out and when he would return to work.
Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, cited an “evolving situation,” and said that due to privacy and medical issues, the Pentagon did not make Austin’s absence public. He declined to provide any other details about Austin’s medical procedure or health.
Austin, 70, spent 41 years in the military, retiring as a four-star Army general in 2016.
In a statement, Ryder said that at all times, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks “was prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary, if required.”
Austin’s hospitalization comes as Iranian-backed militias, missiles and rockets at bases where U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq and Syria, leading the Biden administration to strike back on a number of occasions. Those strikes often involve sensitive, top-level discussions and decisions by Austin and other key military leaders.
The U.S. is also the chief organizer behind a new international maritime coalition using ships and other assets to patrol the southern Red Sea to deter persistent attacks on commercial vessels by Houthi militants in Yemen.
In addition, the administration, particularly Austin, has been at the forefront of the effort to supply, and he’s also been communicating frequently with the Israelis on their war against Hamas.