Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conducts a news briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conducts a news briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (Alexander Kubitza/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday apologized for his failure to disclose his prostate cancer diagnosis, the surgery that followed, and complications that led to an extended hospital stay.

“I want to be crystal clear, we did not handle this right. I did not handle this right,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have told my team and the American people, and I take full responsibility.”

Austin returned to the Pentagon on Monday after being absent for nearly a month because of his cancer and complications from the surgery.

The secretary was released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Jan. 15 after spending two weeks there following the surgery, which was conducted Dec. 22. Austin has come under scrutiny after he failed to notify President Joe Biden and other government officials about his illness and hospitalization.

During a regular health screening in early December, Austin’s cancer was detected. He was admitted to the hospital about three weeks later for a prostatectomy, which involves surgery to remove part of the prostate gland. His doctors called it “a minimally invasive surgical procedure,” though Austin was under general anesthesia during the surgery. He left the hospital the following morning.

On Jan. 1, Austin returned to Walter Reed after experiencing pain in his abdomen, hip and leg, his 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.

Austin returned to Walter Reed last Friday for a follow-up examination for his prostate cancer surgery. Doctors said he is expected to make a full recovery and “he has no planned further treatment for his cancer.

The secretary, who is walking with a limp, said he still has some leg pain and is receiving physical therapy. Outside the Pentagon briefing room on Thursday, a golf cart waited in the hallway for him to use. Austin said his doctors are confident that his leg will improve but it will take time.

“My PT specialist, who I think is a sadist, is working hard,” he joked. “They can’t put a number on [the recovery time] in terms of days or weeks, but it’ll be incremental improvement. I won’t be ready for the Olympics.”

But 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. Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, had previously listed some factors that he said contributed to the delay in communication, such as Austin’s chief of staff being sick with the flu and the lack of information about the secretary’s condition.

On Jan. 2, Austin transferred some of his more pressing responsibilities to Hicks. Austin said Thursday that he was experiencing fever, chills and shallow breathing on that day and doctors decided to move him to the intensive care unit for several days of close monitoring.

Yet Biden did not learn of Austin’s prostate cancer until Jan. 9. That same day, the White House ordered all Cabinet members or secretaries must immediately notify the administration if at any time they cannot perform their duties.

Austin said the news of his cancer diagnosis was a “gut punch.”

“Frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private. I never liked burdening others with my problems,” he said. “Taking this kind of job means losing some of that privacy most of us expect. The American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform duties, even temporarily.”

Austin said he did not direct anyone on his staff to conceal information about his health. The secretary said he has apologized to Biden for not immediately disclosing his diagnosis and treatment. Austin said he did not want to add his personal issues to everything else that the president has “on his plate.”

“He has responded with a grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect and I’m grateful for his full confidence in me,” Austin added.

The Defense Department inspector general announced Jan. 11 that Austin’s handling of his hospitalization will be investigated. The IG review announcement followed a Pentagon announcement that it would conduct a separate 30-day review of the incident.

The House Armed Services Committee has scheduled a hearing on Feb. 14 for Austin to testify about why his recent hospitalization was kept secret from lawmakers and other top officials. A similar hearing in the Democrat-led Senate has not been called, though some Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee have demanded one.

Austin did not specify whether he would testify but said he will continue to work with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of the House committee, to address any additional questions.

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Matthew Adams covers the Defense Department at the Pentagon. His past reporting experience includes covering politics for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and The News and Observer. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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