Lloyd Austin , the US secretary of defense, has transferred duties to his deputy after he was moved to a critical care unit for treatment of symptoms indicating a possible “emergent bladder issue”, the Pentagon has said.
The news comes following widespread criticism of the lack of communication in connection to Mr Austin’s previous hospitalisation for prostate cancer. It was reported that President Joe Biden was unaware of his top defence official being out of action for several days before Mr Austin’s condition was communicated.
Pentagon press secretary Maj Gen Patrick Ryder said in a statement on Sunday that Mr Austin, 70, was taken to hospital by his security detail at about 2.20pm.
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”.
Initially, Mr Austin retained the duties of his office, 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”.
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 hospitalised. 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 mistakes of the past. Mr Austin previously said that there had been failures in the lack of communication about his medical status both towards the public and the rest of the Biden administration.
Mr Austin “traveled to the hospital with the unclassified and classified communications systems necessary to perform his duties”, the Pentagon press secretary said before the defense secretary handed over his duties to Ms Hicks.
Mr Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December, undergoing a procedure on 22 December, for which general anaesthesia and staying overnight at Walter Reed were needed. Following complications from that procedure, Mr Austin had to go back to the hospital on New Year’s Day.
Mr Austin’s hospitalisation being unannounced for days prompted significant concerns regarding transparency, with Republicans eviscerating the Pentagon for their handling of the situation.
Towards the end of February, Mr Austin is set to appear before the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee to address their concerns, CNN noted.
Mr Austin spent two weeks in the hospital and subsequently worked from home for another two weeks.
Appearing before the Pentagon press corps on 1 February, he 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 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.