Austin, 70, remained hospitalised due to complications following a minor elective medical procedure, his press secretary said, as it became clear how closely the Pentagon held information about his stay at Walter Reed.
Air Force Major General Pat Ryder said the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were notified about Austin’s hospitalisation, but he would not say when that happened.
A number of US officials said Saturday that many of the most senior Pentagon service leaders were unaware until Friday that Austin was in hospital. Officials said US President Joe Biden and other senior White House staff were told, but the officials would not specify when. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Ryder said members of Congress were told late Friday afternoon, and other officials said lawmakers were informed after 5pm.
It was not clear when key senior members of Austin’s staff were told, but across the Pentagon, many staff found out when the department released a statement about Austin’s hospital stay just minutes after 5pm. Many believed Austin was out on holiday for the week.
Deputy Defence Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who took over when Austin was hospitalised, was also away. A US official said she had a communications set-up with her in Puerto Rico that allowed her to do the job while Austin, who spent 41 years in the military and retired as a four-star Army general in 2016, was incapacitated.
Ryder said on Saturday that Austin is recovering well and resumed his full duties on Friday evening from his hospital bed. Asked why the hospital stay was kept secret for so long, Ryder said on Friday that it was an “evolving situation”, and that due to privacy and medical issues, the Pentagon did not make Austin’s absence public.
Ryder declined to provide any other details about Austin’s medical procedure or health.
The White House has refused to say when or how it had been notified of Austin’s hospitalisation. It referred questions to the Pentagon.
The Pentagon Press Association, which represents media members who cover the Defence Department, sent a letter of protest on Friday evening to Ryder and Chris Meagher, the assistant defence secretary for public affairs.
“The fact that he has been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre 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 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 defence leader.”
Other senior US leaders have been much more transparent about hospital stays. 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.
Austin’s hospitalisation comes as Iranian-backed militias have repeatedly launched drones, missiles and rockets at bases where US 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 US is also the chief organiser 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 weapons and training to Ukraine, and he has also been communicating frequently with the Israelis on their war against Hamas.
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