Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visits U.S. personnel deployed to Poland on Nov. 21, 2023.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visits U.S. personnel deployed to Poland on Nov. 21, 2023. (Chad McNeeley/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has prostate cancer that required surgery and caused a urinary tract infection that led to his recent undisclosed hospital stays, Pentagon officials and his doctors revealed Tuesday.

“His prostate cancer was detected early, and his prognosis is excellent,” two of Austin’s doctors said in a statement.

Austin, 70, has been in the hospital since Jan. 1 after experiencing complications from a procedure conducted Dec. 22. The secretary has come under scrutiny from lawmakers and news outlets after he failed to notify President Joe Biden and other federal officials about his illness and hospital stay, which has now lasted more than a week.

During a regular health screening in early December, Austin’s cancer was detected by Drs. John Maddox and Gregory Chesnut at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Austin was admitted to the hospital about three weeks later for a prostatectomy, which involves surgery to remove part of the prostate gland. The doctors called it “a minimally invasive surgical procedure.” Austin was under general anesthesia during the surgery and left the hospital the following morning.

On Jan. 1, Austin returned to Walter Reed after experiencing pain in his abdomen, hip and leg, the doctors said. He was later found to have a urinary tract infection and Austin spent days in the intensive care unit before he was moved to a private section of the hospital.

“Further evaluation revealed abdominal fluid collections impairing the function of his small intestines,” the doctors said. “This resulted in the backup of his intestinal contents which was treated by placing a tube through his nose to drain his stomach. The abdominal fluid collections were drained by nonsurgical drain placement. He has progressed steadily throughout his stay. His infection has cleared.”

Austin was still at Walter Reed on Tuesday, and the Pentagon did not know how long he will stay there.

During Austin’s medical treatments, no one at the Defense Department notified the White House, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, Congress or the public for several days. On Jan. 2, Austin transferred some of his more pressing responsibilities to Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico.

Austin’s handling of the situation has drawn calls from some members of Congress for his resignation.

“The [Defense] Department recognizes the understandable concerns expressed by the public, Congress and news media,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, told reporters Tuesday. “Secretary Austin has taken responsibility for the issues with transparency, and the department is taking immediate steps to improve our notification procedures.”

Ryder said a 30-day Pentagon review of the situation is underway, and he expects it will outline where the failures occurred and how similar situations can be avoided in the future. However, Ryder still has not disclosed who made the decision not to inform Biden, lawmakers or other top Pentagon officials about Austin’s medical condition or detailed how the decision was made.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have demanded answers about why key figures in the government were not properly notified that Austin was diagnosed with cancer and he had been hospitalized. Ryder said Biden was only informed of Austin’s prostate cancer diagnosis on Tuesday morning.

Yet, Pentagon and the White House officials have said Austin will remain as defense secretary.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who was at the Pentagon for 16 months as Austin’s first press secretary, has said there is an expectation that top officials will be notified when a Cabinet leader is hospitalized with an illness.

“As a public figure, you have an added burden to be as transparent about your personal situation as possible,” Kirby said Tuesday. “As a Cabinet official, as a Senate-confirmed official in the administration, everyone when they sign up for that and raise their right hand, there comes an obligation with that to be as transparent about your personal situation as you can.”

The White House on Tuesday ordered all Cabinet members or secretaries must immediately notify the administration if at any time they cannot perform their duties, The Associated Press reported.

“Agencies should ensure that delegations [of authority] are issued when a Cabinet member is traveling to areas with limited or no access to communication, undergoing hospitalization or a medical procedure requiring general anesthesia, or otherwise in a circumstance when he or she may be unreachable,” the order states, according to the AP.

The Pentagon has said other factors also contributed to the breakdown in communication, including Austin’s chief of staff being sick with the flu last week and thus unable to make the notifications. Ryder said he was reluctant to tell reporters about the hospitalization until he had more information on Austin’s condition.

Secretaries of Cabinet departments and other top government officials typically always notify the White House and the public when they are planning to be hospitalized. In 2022, Attorney General Merrick Garland notified the public a week ahead of a medical procedure and the Pentagon immediately announced in 2006 when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had surgery on his shoulder.

“We have to do a better job,” Ryder said. “We are committed to making sure we don’t do this again.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Matthew Adams contributed to this report.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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