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US Defense Secretary Austin apologizes for handling of cancer and hospitalization

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 28, 2023. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
February 03, 2024

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologized on Thursday over his handling of his prostate-cancer surgery and two-week hospital stay, saying he should have informed President Joe Biden and the American public.

“I did not handle this right,” Austin said during a briefing at the Pentagon, where he returned to work earlier this week. “I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis,” he said, adding that he had apologized directly to Biden and that he didn’t want to burden the president with his personal problems.

Austin underwent a prostatectomy in late December, and returned to the hospital in severe pain on New Year’s Day after developing a urinary tract infection and swelling that blocked his intestine.

His decision not to tell the president or Congress had sparked questions over the chain of command and some calls for his resignation. Austin on Thursday said there were no gaps in authority while he was out, and that he never considered resigning.

The top US military official’s secret hospitalization was controversial in part because it came at a time of intense geopolitical turbulence, with the Israel-Hamas war prompting dozens of attacks on US bases in the Middle East and Washington backing Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Regional tensions

It also came as the US was preparing to strike back against Iranian-backed militia groups in the region and as the Biden administration was assembling a coalition to strike back against Houthi militants in Yemen that were disrupting commercial vessels plying the Red Sea.

Austin spoke as the US readies a response to a deadly attack at a US base in Jordan over the weekend that killed three US soldiers, saying the Pentagon was preparing a “multi-tiered” response to Iran-backed groups in the region.

“The president will not tolerate attacks on American troops, and neither will I,” Austin said, blaming Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.

“This is a dangerous moment in the Middle East,” he said. “We will continue to work to avoid a wider conflict in the region, but we will take all necessary actions to defend the United States, our interests and our people. And we will respond when we choose, where we choose, and how we choose.”

Austin said he was recovering, but referred to arriving at the Pentagon news conference in a golf cart, which he called “pretty neat.” He joked that he was unlikely to compete in the Olympics, and referred to his physical therapist as a “sadist.” He was noticeably limping as he walked away from the podium slowly.

He was asked repeatedly at the news conference about whether he or members of his staff deliberately tried to conceal his hospital stay from the White House or the public, or whether he had cultivated a culture of secrecy at the department.

Austin said “it’s more about privacy than secrecy,” and that he didn’t direct anyone on his staff not to notify the White House. He deferred most other questions by saying the department is reviewing the episode.

He also called his diagnosis a “gut punch” and said he missed an opportunity to send a message on a public health issue, adding that one in six black men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“I don’t think it’s news that I’m a pretty private guy,” he said.


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