Updated Feb 1, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Defense Secretary Austin admits "we fell short" on hospitalization

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin  at the Pentagon on Jan. 31.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon on Jan. 31. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Thursday he did not handle his recent hospitalization for complications from prostate cancer correctly and takes full responsibility for the secrecy surrounding the stay.

Why it matters: Austin has faced calls to testify by members of Congress over the lack of transparency into his two-week hospitalization, which President Biden called a lapse in judgment.

  • The episode set off a review within the Biden administration on Cabinet protocols for delegating authority.

Catch up quickly: Austin, who returned to the Pentagon for in-person work on Monday, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December and had a minimally invasive procedure to treat it.

  • On Jan. 1, he was admitted to Walter Reed Hospital for complications while recovering, including a bladder infection, and on Jan. 2 he was transferred to a critical care unit.
  • However, his hospitalization wasn't made public until Jan. 5. White House officials, including President Biden, were not informed of Austin's hospitalization for more than three days.

What they're saying: In his first public comments on the situation, Austin said his prostate cancer diagnosis was a "gut punch" and his initial reaction was to keep it private, adding that "I'm a pretty private guy."

  • "I don't like to burden others with my problems," he said.
  • However, he acknowledged the public has a right to know whether their leaders have health challenges that may affect their ability to perform their duties.
  • "So a wider circle should have been notified, especially the president," he said.

Austin said he has no plans to resign, despite calls for his ouster from some Republicans and did not say if he would testify before Congress over the controversy.

  • Either he or Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks were in command while he was in the hospital, Austin said, adding that at no time were there "gaps in authority" or "risks to the department's command and control."
  • He said he's apologized to Biden, who has said he still has confidence in the secretary.

Of note: By keeping his diagnosis and hospitalization secret, Austin said he missed an opportunity to make a public health statement on prostate cancer, a very common form of the disease.

  • On Wednesday, he urged the public, especially Black and older men, to get screened.

The big picture: On the recent drone attack by an Iran-backed militia group that killed three U.S. soldiers in northeast Jordan earlier this week, Austin said he and the president "will not tolerate attacks on American troops."

  • "I don't think our adversaries are of a one-and-done mindset. They have a lot of capability. I have a lot more," he said. "We're going to do what's necessary to protect our troops and our interests."

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