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Pentagon Chief Apologizes After Secret Hospital Stay

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: WSJ:
February 1, 2024 at 19:36

Lloyd Austin apologized for not disclosing his cancer diagnosis in his first public comments about the secrecy surrounding an extended hospital stay.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin apologized to the American people for not initially disclosing his cancer diagnosis, in his first public appearance since entering the hospital in January without informing the White House. Photo: Kevin Wolf/Associated Press

WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologized Thursday for not disclosing his cancer diagnosis, in his first public comments about the secrecy surrounding an extended hospital stay in January. 

The defense chief, who last held a formal press briefing in the Pentagon two years ago, described his diagnosis of prostate cancer as a “gut punch” and said he decided not to tell President Biden, in part, because he didn’t want to add to “all the things that he’s got on his plate.” 

Austin said that decision was a mistake. 

“I want to be crystal clear, we did not handle this right, I did not handle this right,” he said. “It is probably not an issue of secrecy as much as it’s an issue of privacy.”

Austin’s return to the Pentagon comes ahead of an expected response to the drone attack that killed three U.S. service members in Jordan. The U.S. response could come as early as this weekend and is expected to take place over several days, Pentagon officials said. 

Austin limped slightly Thursday as he entered and left the briefing room, and he is being ferried around the Pentagon in a large golf cart. 

Austin, 70 years old, said he didn’t order his staff to keep his cancer diagnosis secret, but that those around him might have thought they were acting in his best interest. “I don’t think I’ve created a culture of secrecy,” Austin said. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaking at a Pentagon press briefing. PHOTO: KEVIN WOLF/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaking at a Pentagon press briefing. PHOTO: KEVIN WOLF/ASSOCIATED PRESS

At least two reviews of the matter are under way, including one by the Pentagon inspector general and another inside Austin’s own office. In addition, committees on Capitol Hill with Pentagon oversight have demanded responses to a list of specific questions. Some lawmakers have called for Austin to testify under oath. 

During his comments Thursday, Austin cited the investigations as reasons why he couldn’t provide fuller answers. 

White House and Pentagon officials have expressed private frustration with the episode. Biden has said Austin hasn’t lost his trust or confidence. 

The secret hospitalization of a senior cabinet member who is sixth in the line of presidential succession and second in the line of military command after the president is without modern precedent. 

Austin underwent a planned surgery for prostate cancer before Christmas and transferred authority to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, while he was incapacitated. About two weeks later, on the evening of Jan. 1, Austin was taken by ambulance from his home outside Washington, D.C. to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, because he said he was in severe pain and he was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit. 

The Pentagon didn’t notify the White House until Thursday of that week, because the secretary’s chief of staff was out sick with the flu, officials said.

The Pentagon said that either Austin or his deputy were in charge of the building at all times. Hicks, however, was on a previously planned vacation on the beach in Puerto Rico, and was essentially running the Pentagon from the resort in which she was staying. 

The Pentagon said that Hicks wasn’t aware of Austin’s situation. 

The Pentagon released a short statement on Friday, Jan. 5, about the same time when Austin resumed operational control, though he remained hospitalized for another 10 days. Austin, who worked from home after his hospital release, returned to the Pentagon for the first time Monday. 

The Defense Department has said Austin is expected to make a full recovery. 

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com and Gordon Lubold at gordon.lubold@wsj.com

Appeared in the February 2, 2024, print edition as 'Pentagon Chief Says He Is Sorry for Mishandling Secret Hospitalization'.

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