Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a press briefing at the Pentagon on Feb. 1, 2024.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a press briefing at the Pentagon on Feb. 1, 2024. (Alexander Kubitza/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — Privacy restrictions and staff hesitancy is being blamed for the failure to notify the president and other U.S. officials about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s prostate cancer and subsequent hospitalization for complications from surgery, according to an internal review released Monday by the Pentagon.

Austin’s staff was limited in the information that they could provide due to medical privacy laws preventing what information could be shared with them by medical staff, according to an unclassified summary of the review.

The review, which was conducted by Jennifer Walsh, director of administration and management at the Pentagon, does not mention any punishments or reprimands for staff members. Austin has previously stated he did not instruct anyone on his staff to withhold information about his health.

“There was no finding of ill-intent or an attempt to obfuscate,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said Monday.

The review made eight recommendations, and two already are being implemented. In a memorandum from Austin, the six remaining recommendations will be implemented in the next 90 days, unless specified otherwise. Some of the actions include ensuring key defense officials in the order of succession are familiar with relevant processes and procedures, as well as the department reviewing and updating internal reporting practices associated with the transfer of duties, Ryder said.

“As hindsight has shown, the process for making decisions to transfer the secretary’s authority could and should be improved. Additional written guidance and support plans would aid in setting optimal conditions for the secretary’s and deputy secretary’s teams to provide appropriate support for the deputy secretary when assuming the functions and duties of the secretary as acting secretary,” according to the summary of the review.

Ryder also said the classified version of the review has been sent to Congress.

Austin is scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday about his failure to notify the White House and Congress about his illness. The Defense Department inspector general is still conducting a separate investigation into Austin’s handling of his hospitalization.

Austin, 70, returned to the Pentagon on Jan. 29 after being absent from the building for nearly a month because of his health. The secretary had been released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Jan. 15 after spending about two weeks there following the surgery, which was conducted Dec. 22.

He did address reporters at the Pentagon on Feb. 1 and apologized for not disclosing his prostate 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,” Austin said. “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.”

His cancer was discovered during a regular health screening in early December. He was admitted to the hospital about three weeks later for surgery, which required general anesthesia. He left the hospital the following morning.

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

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.

The summary of the review states Austin’s staff was “hesitant to pry or share any information” that they learned and as long as the secretary remained in the ICU “timely secured communications” could not be ensured.

On Jan. 2, Austin transferred some of his more pressing responsibilities to Hicks.

Austin said he had been 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.

The secretary returned to Walter Reed on Feb. 11 where he was admitted to a critical unit and underwent non-surgical procedures to correct a bladder problem. The secretary was discharged from the hospital on Feb. 13 and returned to work at the Pentagon two days later.

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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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