WASHINGTON — Amid tensions in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was hospitalized, spending four days in intensive care, two senior administration officials said.
The Pentagon did not inform senior officials on the White House National Security Council of Austin's hospitalization until Thursday, three days after he arrived at Walter Reed Medical Center, a US official confirmed. Politico first reported the delay.
Austin was hospitalized Monday night with “complications following a recent elective medical procedure,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Friday evening.
Austin issued a statement Saturday taking responsibility for not disclosing his position sooner.
“I look forward to recovering and returning to the Pentagon soon. I also understand the media's concerns about transparency, and I know I could have done a better job of ensuring the public is properly informed. I promise to do better,” Austin said. “But it's important to say this: This is my clinical practice, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
President Joe Biden spoke with Austin on Saturday evening, according to a senior administration official who indicated it was the first phone call between the president and Austin since he was hospitalized.
“It's a heated conversation,” the senior executive said. “The president wished him well and said he looked forward to seeing the secretary back at the Pentagon soon.”
Austin has been unable to perform his duties since New Year's Day, a senior security official said on Friday. It was not clear when he would be released, the source said. No details were available on what ailed him.
Ryder told NBC News that Austin “resumed his full duties” on Friday evening. He was admitted to the hospital on Saturday.
A senior defense official said Kathleen Hicks, who was on leave, has assumed her duties.
Hicks was on pre-scheduled leave when Austin was hospitalized this week, a security official said. He was vacationing in Puerto Rico, the official said.
He is “maintaining full communication with DOD staff,” the official said. “He oversaw the day-to-day operations of the DOD and conducted some routine business.”
The office of secretary of defense for policy, third in line for Pentagon civilian leadership, has been filled as an interim acting position because nominee Derek Solett has not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the source said. Sasha Baker has been playing the role since last summer.
“At all times, the deputy defense secretary stood ready to exercise the secretary's powers and, if necessary, to act,” Ryder said in the statement.
Pentagon officials declined to elaborate on Austin's condition or say whether he was properly prevented from performing his duties this week.
The Pentagon would not release details about the procedure or when it happened, and it would not say whether Austin was taken to the hospital by ambulance.
Asked why the Pentagon kept Austin's hospitalization a secret, Ryder told NBC News, “It's a situation where a lot of factors have to be considered.”
They include Austin's personal privacy, he said.
While Austin remains hospitalized, the U.S. has conducted a rare and controversial strike against a veteran Iranian-backed militant in Baghdad, bases with Americans have been hit at least six times, and the Biden administration is considering options for attacking Houthi militias. for their frequent attacks against ships in the Red Sea.
Tensions in the region center on the Israel-Hamas war. In October, the US Navy dispatched two carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean in response.
Iran-backed Houthi militias based in Yemen, displeased by Israel's attacks on Palestinian communities, have been attacking container ships in the Red Sea.
On December 30, a US Navy destroyer shot down two Houthi missiles after it responded to an attack on a container ship, causing no injuries or damage, military officials said at the time. The next day, Houthi rebels opened fire on naval helicopters responding to a container ship distress call. The Navy returned fire, sinking three small boats and killing the crew, officials said.
The US is wary of further regional trouble as Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon exchange weapons with Israel on its northern border.