It’s a silence that makes noise. US Defense Minister Lloyd Austin is under fire after delaying publicly reporting his hospitalization, contrary to protocol. The admission to the hospital of the head of the Pentagon, which occurred on Monday January 1 for health complications, was only made public on Friday January 5 evening by the Ministry of Defense, sparking criticism from the Pentagon journalists’ association .

Worse still, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and White House officials were not informed until three days after – Thursday – Mr. Austin’s admission to the hospital, reported the weekly Politico. Mr. Sullivan then warned President Joe Biden, and the US Congress learned fifteen minutes before the news was made public, according to the same source.

Lloyd Austin, 70, was admitted to intensive care for four days, and remains in the hospital as of Saturday, according to NBC News. The date of his release is still not known, said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense, affirming that Mr. Austin had however resumed “his functions” since Friday evening.

“I am committed to doing better.”

“I recognize that I could have done a better job of ensuring that citizens were properly informed. I am committed to doing better,” Lloyd Austin said Saturday from Walter Reed military hospital near Washington. “I take full responsibility for my decisions,” he insisted in a statement, specifying that he would “soon return to the Pentagon.”

Joe Biden and his secretary of defense spoke on Saturday evening, reported a White House official, stressing that the exchange had been “warm”. “The President has every confidence in Mr. Austin. He is looking forward to his return to the Pentagon,” the official told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Mr. Austin was hospitalized “for complications that arose following a non-emergency medical procedure,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said Friday evening.

This delay in communication from the Pentagon sparked strong criticism in the United States. “The Secretary of Defense is the key link in the chain of command between the President and the military, including the nuclear chain of command, when the most weighty decisions must be made in minutes,” commented in a statement Saturday Republican Senator Tom Cotton, member of the Armed Services Committee. “If this [Politico] article is true, there must be consequences for this shocking failure,” he insisted.

Context of high tensions

The Pentagon Journalists Association expressed “significant concerns” in a letter, saying that delaying the announcement for days until “late evening on a Friday is an outrage.”

“At every turn,” Assistant Defense Minister Kathleen Hicks, who is authorized to assume ministerial duties if he is unable to do so, was “ready to act,” Pat Ryder said. She “made routine decisions this week on behalf” of Mr. Austin, a Pentagon spokesperson later told AFP.

The hospitalization of the head of the Pentagon comes in a context of strong tensions for the United States in the Middle East, linked to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels have increased attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea, while other groups in Iraq and Syria have targeted U.S. forces based in those countries for aid. missiles and drones.