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US Defense Secretary promises transparency amid criticism of secrecy surrounding hospital stay

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United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has taken “full responsibility” for the secrecy surrounding his hospitalization since last Monday, leaving many top White House officials, including President Joe Biden, unaware of his situation. Austin, aged 70, was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on January 1 for complications following a recent elective medical procedure, a fact disclosed by the Pentagon on Friday.

The secrecy breach, considered a deviation from standard protocol, occurs amidst the Israel-Gaza war and heightened tensions in the Middle East. As a key figure just below President Biden in the US military chain of command, Austin is mandated to be available at a moment’s notice to address national security crises.

Austin acknowledges the need for better communication, stating, “I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better. This was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.” He assures a swift return to the Pentagon.

Reports reveal that Austin spent three days in the hospital before Pentagon officials notified National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other White House officials, who then informed President Biden. Congress learned about Austin’s hospital admission only 15 minutes before the public statement on Friday.

While the defense department insists Austin resumed “full duties” from his hospital bed on Friday evening, the Pentagon Press Association, representing defense department journalists, criticizes the secrecy, emphasizing that a public figure like Austin has no claim to medical privacy in such a situation. The association points out that even US presidents disclose when they delegate duties due to medical procedures.

Highlighting the urgency of public awareness about the health and decision-making ability of the top defense leader, especially during critical international situations, the association penned a letter to the Pentagon on Friday. In contrast, other senior US officials, such as Attorney General Merrick Garland, have shown greater transparency about hospital stays, providing advance notice and outlining return-to-work plans during routine medical procedures in 2022.

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