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US defense secretary Lloyd Austin makes first appearance after secret hospitalization

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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appeared via videolink on Tuesday after a previously undisclosed hospitalization, leaving both the White House and Congress in the dark for several days.

Austin, who spent two weeks at Walter Reed for complications from cancer treatment, addressed a meeting on aid for Ukraine’s battle against Russian forces from the comfort of his residence.

“The security of the entire international community is on the line in Ukraine’s fight. I am more determined than ever to work with our allies and partners to support Ukraine and to get the job done,” Austin declared, emphasizing a $250 million military assistance package announced last month.

While Austin’s prepared comments acknowledged his health and expressed optimism about returning to the Pentagon soon, he omitted any mention of his medical situation during the address.

The 70-year-old career soldier underwent minor surgery for prostate cancer on December 22, facing complications that led to his readmission less than two weeks later.

Surprisingly, the White House only learned of Austin’s hospitalization on January 4, with Congress being informed a day later. President Joe Biden wasn’t made aware of the cancer diagnosis until January 9. In response, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients initiated an urgent review of the rules regarding senior officials’ incapacitation.

The Pentagon’s independent inspector general also announced an examination “to examine the roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities, and actions related to the secretary of defense’s hospitalization” in both December and January. Austin’s undisclosed hospitalization left a key national security official unaccounted for at a critical time, with ongoing challenges in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Despite calls from Republican lawmakers for Austin’s dismissal, President Biden expressed confidence in his defense secretary, acknowledging Austin’s lapse in judgment but standing by his decision.

The incident underscores the need for transparency and communication within the highest levels of the US government, especially during times of international crisis.

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