US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been hospitalised for the second time this year, while he undergoes treatment for a possible bladder issue following his prostate cancer diagnosis.
The Biden administration confirmed on Sunday that the Pentagon chief had been admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Doctors said that it is unclear how long he will remain at the centre.
In an update later on Sunday night, officials confirmed that he had been placed in a critical care unit for monitoring following a number of tests. His deputy has taken over duties in the meantime.
This comes after Mr Austin faced widespread criticism in early January when it emerged that the 70-year-old had failed to disclose his cancer diagnosis – and that he was out of action for treatment – to the president and the rest of the administration for several days.
Here’s what we know so far about this latest hospital stay:
Current hospitalisation and transferral of duties
The Pentagon announced on Sunday that Mr Austin had been hospitalised for treatment of symptoms indicating a possible “emergent bladder issue”.
Pentagon Press Secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder said in a statement that Mr Austin was taken to hospital by his security detail at about 2.20pm on 11 February.
He added that Mr Austin was taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to be seen for symptoms suggesting an “emergent bladder issue”.
“The Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been notified. Additionally, White House and Congressional notifications have occurred,” the statement read.
Initially, Mr Austin retained the duties of his office and hd “traveled to the hospital with the unclassified and classified communications systems necessary to perform his duties”.
But, in a follow-up statement, the press secretary said that “at approximately 4:55 pm today, Secretary Austin transferred the functions and duties of the office of the Secretary of Defense to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. The Deputy Secretary of Defense has assumed the functions and duties”.
The transferral of his duties came after he was moved to a critical care unit in the hospital.
Doctors at the hospital said in yet another statement later on Sunday that “after a series of tests and evaluations, the Secretary was admitted into the critical care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for supportive care and close monitoring”.
“At this time, it is not clear how long Secretary Austin will remain hospitalized. The current bladder issue is not expected to change his anticipated full recovery. His cancer prognosis remains excellent,” they added.
The initial statement regarding Mr Austin’s hospitalisation came within three hours of his arrival at Walter Reed, a clear reaction to avoid the mistakes of the past.
During his previous hospitalisation for prostate cancer in early January, President Joe Biden did not know for three days that his top defence official was out of action.
The defence secretary later admitted that there had been failures in communication about his medical status both with the public and the rest of the Biden administration. The uproar over the lack of communication prompted the Pentagon to conduct a review of its procedures.
Prostate cancer diagnosis and previous hospital stay
Back in early December, Mr Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent a surgical procedure on 22 December, for which general anaesthesia and staying overnight at Walter Reed were needed.
Following complications from that procedure, Mr Austin was readmitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day with a urinary tract infection.
Mr Austin spent two weeks in the hospital and subsequently worked from home for another two weeks.
During this time, he delegated his authority to Ms Hicks, but the Defense Department didn’t share the hospital stay with the White House, top officials in its own ranks, the Congress, or the media for a number of days.
Mr Biden only became aware of Mr Austin’s absence three days after he was hospitalised when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was told just before he was set to take part in an event the defence secretary had also been scheduled to attend.
Ms Hicks was also not made aware of Mr Austin’s status for three days, despite being his deputy – and the person to take on his duties in his absence.
She took on the duties of the secretary temporarily even as she was on vacation in Puerto Rico.
Pentagon officials were made aware about two hours before an initial public statement was released, and Congress was told about 15 minutes before, according to Politico.
This all came at a time of escalating tensions in the Middle East over Israel’s military actions in Gaza, rising attacks on US military bases in the Middle East by Iran-backed militias as well as a time when the US Navy was combatting strikes by Houthi rebels on international shipping in the Red Sea.
The lack of communication flew in the face of standard practices around reporting medical problems of cabinet secretaries and other top US officials, and prompted significant concerns regarding transparency.
Backlash over lack of communication
Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress slammed the Pentagon for its handling of the situation and called on Mr Austin to step down.
In mid-January, Mr Biden acknowledged that it was a lapse in judgment for Mr Austin not to share his medical status, but the president added that he still has confidence in the secretary.
“Generally, the president has been like, this can’t happen again,” an anonymous White House official told Politico early last month.
On 7 January, former President Donald Trump called for Mr Austin to be “fired immediately for improper professional conduct and dereliction of duty”.
Newly-released 911 call reveals new details about Lloyd Austin’s hospitalisation
“He has been missing for one week, and nobody, including his boss, Crooked Joe Biden, had a clue as to where he was, or might be,” he ranted.
“He has performed poorly, and should have been dismissed long ago, along with ‘General’ Mark Milley, for many reasons, but in particular the catastrophic surrender in Afghanistan, perhaps the most embarrassing moment in the history of our Country!”
The Pentagon Press Association, which represents media outlets covering the department, sent a letter to Maj Gen Ryder and Chris Meagher, the assistant defense secretary for public affairs saying: “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 letter added: “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 defense leader.”
Towards the end of February, Mr Austin is set to appear before the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee to address concerns over the matter.
Appearing before the Pentagon press corps on 1 February, Mr Austin said: “We did not handle this right, and I did not handle this right. I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public.
“And I take full responsibility. I apologise to my teammates and to the American people.”
The Office of the Secretary of Defense has now finished a month-long review of the communication procedures regarding the transfer of responsibilities.
Maj Gen Ryder told the press on Thursday that Mr Austin is looking at the review, adding that while large parts of it are classified, the Pentagon would attempt to share as much as possible with the public.
Legal experts have said that Mr Austin may have violated a law regarding “reporting of vacancies” which states that executive agencies have to report any absences of top officials and who is serving in an acting capacity to both the House and the Senate, Reuters reported on 9 January.
“The law is largely procedural and does not spell out any penalties for lapses. Legal experts said that Austin appears to have clearly violated the rule,” the news agency noted. “Austin may have also violated internal US Department of Defense protocols.”
Who will step in if he remains out of action?
Ms Hicks has taken on the duties of the secretary of defence since Sunday 11 February – marking the second time she has taken on his duties so far this year.
During the Trump administration, several cabinet secretaries served in an “acting” capacity – without the Senate confirmation which is required for a permanent secretary. Mr Austin, a retired four-star general, was confirmed by a vote of 93-2 on 22 January 2021, becoming the first Black secretary of defense.
Before Mr Trump came to office, there was little precedent in terms of acting defense secretaries.
“There have only been two acting defense secretaries in the 71 years since the role was created,” Defence One noted in January 2019. “Although there is little debate that the deputy secretary is the most appropriate person to fill in until the Senate can confirm a replacement … there is a fierce debate over what time limits — if any — the administration faces to nominate that person”.
The 1986 law known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act governs how top officials are replaced at the Pentagon. It states that the deputy secretary has the full powers of the office whenever the secretary’s position is vacant.
But the law doesn’t set time limits for the deputy’s time at the top, and it states there are no constraints on the authorities of the deputy when they take on the acting secretary role, retired two-star Marine general Arnold Punaro, who helped write the law, told Defense One.