U.S. Defense Secretary Austin cancels travel after hospitalization

By Thomson Reuters Feb 12, 2024 | 10:44 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has canceled a trip to Brussels where he was set to take part in meetings with other NATO defense ministers, a U.S. official said on Monday, after the Pentagon chief was admitted to a critical care unit and had to transfer his duties to his deputy.

Austin, 70, was taken to Walter Reed Military Medical Center on Sunday for “symptoms suggesting an emergent bladder issue.” Austin had failed to disclose a prostate cancer surgery in December and a subsequent hospitalization in January to deal with its complications.

Austin was set to depart for the NATO meeting of defense ministers in Brussels taking place on Thursday and a separate meeting with allies on Wednesday on how to continue supporting Ukraine in countering Russia’s invasion.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting on Ukraine’s defense needs, known as the Ukraine contact group, would be held virtually.

It was unclear how long Austin would remain in the hospital, but he has transferred his duties to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks.

Austin’s secrecy during his hospitalizations in December and January had triggered a political uproar. Republicans accused him of dereliction of duty. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has said he has confidence in Austin despite what the president agreed was a lapse in judgment.

Earlier this month, Austin apologized for failing to tell Biden and senior staff about his cancer diagnosis ahead of time, adding that the health scare was a “gut punch” that had shaken him.

The most recent hospitalization was publicly announced soon after he was taken by his security detail.

He is scheduled to testify before Congress on Feb. 29 about the situation.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)