1705031786 Pentagon investigation into controversial hospitalizations of its leader

Pentagon investigation into controversial hospitalizations of its leader

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with counterparts in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 16, 2023 (POOL / WILLY KURNIAWAN)

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with counterparts in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 16, 2023 (POOL / WILLY KURNIAWAN)

The U.S. Defense Department will launch an independent investigation into two long-secret hospitalizations of Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, who was suffering from prostate cancer, according to an internal memo released Thursday.

“The purpose of this review is to examine the roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities and actions related to the Secretary of Defense’s hospitalizations in December 2023 and January 2024,” the text states.

Lloyd Austin, 70, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December. He underwent surgery on December 22nd, returned home the next day and was hospitalized again from January 1st due to complications including nausea and severe pain.

The White House was not informed of his hospitalization until last Thursday. Congress learned of the situation on Friday, and President Joe Biden was not informed of the diagnosis until this week.

This situation caused an outcry and calls for the dismissal or resignation of Lloyd Austin multiplied, which was a real thorn in the side of the head of state in the middle of an election year.

The Pentagon investigation, led by an independent inspector general, will also assess whether current Defense Department procedures are “sufficient to ensure appropriate, timely notification and effective delegation of authority in the event of illness” or whether they are unavailable to senior officials “, says the message.

– “No detail” –

The controversy comes at a time when the world's leading military power is embroiled in several major conflicts, from Ukraine to the Middle East.

Washington is supporting Kiev against Russia and Israel against the Palestinian Hamas and is mobilizing its international partners against the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are threatening maritime traffic in the Red Sea.

The White House acknowledged that these secret hospitalizations were not “ideal.”

According to his spokesman, if the president maintained his “confidence” in his minister, the White House also ordered a review of the rules that apply in the event of the incapacity of senior officials.

Elected Republicans have called for Lloyd Austin's resignation, including former President Donald Trump, Joe Biden's likely rival in November's presidential election.

Republican senators held a news conference Thursday to protest the man's handling of his medical situation.

“If the secretary of defense is in so much pain that he has to leave his home in an ambulance to be taken to the hospital and taken to the intensive care unit, that is not a minor detail,” said Roger Wicker, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

– “Answer now” –

“This is an event of such gravity, scale and magnitude that key members of the department, including his own deputy, should have been informed.”

Like others, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks didn't learn of the Pentagon chief's second hospitalization until three days later, even though some of her duties had previously been assigned to her.

“America deserves answers now,” the senator continued.

Several Democrats also expressed discomfort with this situation, but only one of them called for the minister's resignation.

While Lloyd Austin is still hospitalized, he will remain in contact with his teams and be updated on operations, the Pentagon said.

Republican Senator Rick Scott welcomed the opening of an investigation but called for more detailed explanations.

“I'm (…) satisfied with the investigation, but I think the Pentagon needs to come here immediately and tell us exactly what happened. And anyone who did something wrong should be held accountable.”

Joe Biden has always been reluctant to fire senior officials to avoid the reshuffles and repeated crises of the Trump era.

He notably stuck with his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, despite the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 with the Taliban's capture of Kabul.