Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Army Medical Center on New Year's Day for complications from an elective medical procedure, the Pentagon said Friday.
The Pentagon announced Austin's hospitalization four days after he was initially admitted. Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder made no mention of the hospitalization at a press conference Thursday.
The short statement did not detail what the procedure was or what complications followed the procedure, but it did say that Austin is “recovering well.” Ryder told CNN that Austin remained in the hospital as of Friday afternoon, but he is expected to resume his full duties after Friday. It is not known when he will be released from the hospital.
Asked why the Pentagon waited four days to notify the public about Austin's hospitalization, Ryder said, “This is an evolving situation where we have to consider a number of factors, including medical issues and personal privacy issues.”
The Pentagon declined to say whether Austin was unconscious or in critical condition at any time during his hospitalization.
As Secretary of Defense, Austin is one of the most important members of the Biden administration's cabinet, and he is the civilian head of the military, one of his most important roles in the national security system — especially as the U.S. military faces heightened tensions. In the Middle East.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks “was prepared to exercise and exercise the secretary's powers, if necessary,” Ryder said in the statement.
Austin's hospitalization — and lack of approval — comes as the U.S. grapples with a host of foreign national security issues, including attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East, U.S. Navy ships intercepting Houthi launches from Yemen and the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.
While Austin was hospitalized, the United States conducted a strike in Baghdad against a commander of pro-Iran militias. Ryder said he authorized the strike before Austin was hospitalized.
Austin's failure to publicly announce his hospitalization breaks with past precedent.
In a letter to Ryder and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Chris Meagher, the Pentagon Press Association expressed its “outrage” at the failure to warn the public in time.
“This falls far short of the normal disclosure standards that other federal departments routinely hold when senior officials undergo medical procedures or are temporarily incapacitated,” the Pentagon Press Association wrote, requesting a meeting to discuss the situation. “The public has a right to know when members of the U.S. Cabinet are hospitalized, under anesthesia, or delegated duties as a result of any medical procedure. The same goes for the President. As the nation's top security chief, Secretary Austin has no right to privacy in this situation.
When President Joe Biden was hospitalized for a routine colonoscopy in 2021, the White House announced in advance that he would briefly transition power to Vice President Kamala Harris.
While Marine Corps Commandant General Eric Smith Hospital at the end of October, within 24 hours the service notified the public that he had suffered a medical emergency that required immediate attention. The Marine Corps later enlisted a senior officer to serve as acting commander in his absence. Within four days, the Marine Corps said Smith was making excellent progress following a sudden cardiac arrest.
Smith is scheduled to have surgery in the coming weeks, followed by a period of rehabilitation. He said he will resume his regular duties.
This story has been updated with additional information.