(WASHINGTON) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday he never told his staff to keep his cancer surgery and hospitalization secret from the White House, but acknowledged he should have handled it differently and he apologized for keeping President Joe Biden and others in the dark for weeks.
“We did not handle this right and I did not handle this right. I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I take full responsibility,” Austin told reporters in a lengthy Pentagon briefing. “I have apologized directly to President Biden and I’ve told him that I’m deeply sorry for not letting him know immediately that I received a heavy diagnosis and was getting treatment.”
Known as an intensely private man, Austin provided his most extensive comments to date on the secrecy surrounding his cancer diagnosis and struggles with complications since his surgery on Dec. 22. It was the first time he has answered questions from reporters since his cancer surgery, and his answers were often bluntly personal, offering rare insights into the deeply private matter.
“The news shook me,” Austin, 70, said about getting the initial diagnosis in early December. “It was a gut punch. And, frankly my first instinct was to keep it private.”
While he said he “never directed anyone to keep my January hospitalization from the White House,” Austin dodged questions about any repercussions on his staff or any decisions they made about disclosing it.
He said he doesn’t believe he has created “a culture of secrecy” in his office. And he said he did not tell his aides to ask first responders to avoid using lights and sirens when calling for an ambulance on Jan. 1. But, he acknowledged, “there will be security officers, there will be other staff members who may perceive that they’re doing things in my best interest.”
His lack of disclosure prompted changes in federal guidelines and triggered an internal Pentagon review and an inspector general review into his department’s notification procedures. Both reviews are ongoing, and members of Congress have called for hearings on the matter.
Austin was taken by ambulance to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 1 after experiencing extreme pain due to complications from the surgery. He was admitted to the intensive care unit the next day. He was released from the hospital on Jan. 15.
He transferred decision-making authorities to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, but did not tell her why. Some top staff members were told about his hospitalization on Jan. 2, but no one told the White House or the president until two days later. His hospitalization was publicly announced on Jan. 5, but his cancer diagnosis and surgery were not disclosed until the following week.
A key question is why Austin’s chief of staff Kelly Magsamen or his senior military assistant, Lt. Gen. Ron Clark, didn’t inform the White House or key leaders more quickly.
Austin’s solo appearance in the Pentagon briefing room was also a rare moment. He is known for avoiding the media as much as possible. But he appeared calm and even joked a few times during the 35-minute press conference. His ongoing leg pain was evident as he walked carefully to the podium, but he said he expects to recover, although it will be incremental and take time.
Pressed on why he didn’t tell the president and others about his diagnosis and surgery, Austin said, “I’m a pretty private guy. I never like burdening others with my problems. It’s just not my way.” He added that the president has a lot of things on his plate and he didn’t want to add his personal issue to that.
“I apologize to my teammates and to the American people,” he said.
He said he has learned from the experience. “Taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect,” he said. “The American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties even temporarily. So a wider circle should have been notified, especially the president.”
Austin also acknowledged that he missed a crucial opportunity to use his prostate check and early discovery of the cancer as a teaching moment, for his many male troops and workers across the department, and, even more importantly, for the African American population.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among American men. It affects 1 in every 8 men — and 1 in every 6 African American men — during their lifetime.
“I’m here with a clear message to other men, especially older men,” Austin said. “Get screened, get your regular checkups. Prostate cancer has a glass jaw. If your doctor can spot it, they can treat it and beat it.”
Asked about the matter earlier in January, Biden said it was a lapse in judgment for Austin not to tell him about his hospitalization, but he said he still has confidence in his Pentagon chief.
Austin, who worked from home for two weeks after his release from the hospital, returned to work in the Pentagon on Monday. He had not been in the building since Dec. 21.