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Defense Secretary Austin says he didn't handle news of hospitalization 'right'

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday he "should have told the president about" his cancer diagnosis.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday he "should have told the president about" his cancer diagnosis.

Updated February 1, 2024 at 1:40 PM ET

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, under fire from Capitol Hill for not disclosing to the White House his hospital stay for prostate cancer, told reporters Thursday, "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."

Austin, in his first Pentagon press briefing in more than a year, appeared thin and walked with a slow gait as he approached the podium and said he was recovering and working with a physical therapist. He said he was a private person and did not want to burden Biden with his diagnosis, saying he later apologized to President Biden and does not plan to resign.

"I've told him that I'm deeply sorry for not letting him know immediately that I received a heavy diagnosis and was getting treatment," Austin, 70, said. "And he responded with a grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect.

Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December. He was hospitalized for the procedure on Dec. 22, and the next day he transferred his authority to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks. But neither Biden nor Hicks was aware he was in the hospital, or that he returned on New Year's Daywith complications. It was not until several days later that Biden learned he was in the hospital, and another week before the president was made aware of Austin's cancer treatment.

But Austin did not answer a repeated question about whether any staff members knew of his hospitalization on Dec. 22 and if so, why didn't they tell the White House. His chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, who would normally inform her White House counterpart, was sick with the flu at the time. She was not seated among the staff at the Pentagon on Thursday, though she would normally be in attendance.

And another unnamed staff member told a radio dispatcher to send an ambulance to Austin's home but to make sure the ambulance did not have its siren or lights on. Austin said Thursday he did not direct his aide to say that.

Magsamen has ordered a 30-day review of the communications breakdown. Another review is being carried out by the Pentagon's Inspector General. Some Democrats faulted Austin's secrecy and Republicans have been particularly critical.

Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wrote Austin a letter on Jan. 18, saying Austin promised transparency but failed to answer some of his questions.

"Specifically, I am alarmed you refused to answer whether you instructed your staff to not inform the President of the United States or anyone else of your hospitalization," Rogers wrote. "Unfortunately, this leads me to believe that information is being withheld from Congress. Congress must understand what happened and who made decisions to prevent the disclosure of the whereabouts of a cabinet secretary."

Rogers said he would call a hearing of the full committee on Feb. 14 because of Austin's "unwillingness to provide candid and complete answers."

Austin was dischargedfrom Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Jan. 15. He returned to work at the Pentagon this week.

Austin also addressed the recent suicide drone attack by Iranian-backed militias that killed three American soldiers at a remote base in Jordan and wounded dozens more.

"The president will not tolerate attacks on American troops – and neither will I," Austin said, reading from prepared remarks.

The Pentagon has prepared tiered strikes against militia groups in both Iraq and Syria that have targeted U.S. forces in at least 165 attacks since last fall. Those attacks are expected to begin any day now.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.