US defense chief under fire for undisclosed hospitalization


Washington, Jan 9 (AFP/APP):US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is facing growing criticism for waiting days to inform the White House and Congress about his hospitalization, keeping key officials in the dark about his status during a major Middle East crisis.
              Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on January 1 due to complications from an elective medical procedure, but the Pentagon did not make any public announcement until four days later, and also waited to notify other top government figures.
              The 70-year-old secretary's hospitalization comes with Washington struggling to contain the fallout from the Israel-Hamas war, which has sparked violence against American forces in Iraq and Syria as well as attacks on international shipping.
              With the Middle East in turmoil, the idea that "for four days the secretary of defense is in a hospital and (President Joe) Biden doesn't know is shocking," Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group political risk firm, said Monday.
              Bremmer said the situation gives the president an opportunity to replace Austin, but the White House has stood by the secretary.
              Austin underwent an unspecified medical procedure on December 22 and was discharged the following day, but began experiencing "severe pain" on January 1 and was taken by ambulance to Walter Reed, Pentagon spokesman Major General Pat Ryder told journalists on Monday.
              Some of Austin's authorities were transferred to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on January 2, but she was not told that he was hospitalized until two days later, Ryder said.