US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin kept the cancer diagnosis out of the White House

  • Kayla Epstein in New York and Bernd Debusman Jr. at the White House
  • BBC News

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WATCH: Pentagon admits delay in discussing Austin status

President Joe Biden was only informed on Tuesday that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was being treated for cancer, the White House said.

Mr Austin, 70, was admitted to hospital on January 1 and later admitted to intensive care in December for complications following surgery.

He faced criticism for not telling the higher authorities about this for several days.

He apologized for “not ensuring that the public was properly informed”.

The delay in notifying the White House raised potential national security concerns and issues of transparency within the Biden administration.

The Secretary of Defense sits below the President in the chain of command for the U.S. military, and is one of the most important members of the President's Cabinet.

The Pentagon confirmed Mr Austin was in hospital on Tuesday.

'not optimal'

At a press conference Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said President Biden was only informed that day of the prostate cancer diagnosis.

“No one in the White House knew until this morning that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer,” he said.

Although he insisted the president's initial reaction was concern for the secretary's health, Mr Kirby admitted communications were “not optimal”.

“It's not the way to go,” Mr Kirby said.

According to Mr Kirby, Mr Biden and Chech Austin have not spoken since their last conversation over the weekend.

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The Pentagon previously did not say why Lloyd Austin was in the hospital

Mr Austin's partner, Kathleen Hicks, was not informed of his hospital stay, although she was asked to take on some of his responsibilities.

Doctors for Mr Austin said an examination in December 2023 “identified prostate cancer requiring treatment”.

Mr Austin underwent “minimally invasive surgery” at Walter Reed National Army Medical Center, the country's top military hospital, to remove the cancer on December 22. He was under general anesthesia for the procedure.

He returned to hospital on 1 January 2024 after experiencing “complications” and an evaluation revealed a urinary tract infection. He was transferred to the intensive care unit the next day for further treatment, including “abdominal fluid collection that was impairing the function of his small intestine.”

Doctors said he “did not lose consciousness and was not under general anesthesia” during his stay at the hospital. Mr Austin's infection cleared and “he continues to make progress and we expect a full recovery although it will be a slow process”.

Doctors said the cancer was caught early and his “prognosis is excellent”.

A spokesman for Mr Austin did not provide an update on when he would be discharged, but said “Secretary Austin continues to recover and is in good spirits”.

At Tuesday's briefing, Pentagon press secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder did not offer an explanation for why Mr. Austin had not released his position sooner.

“I don't have that in particular,” he said, but noted that a prostate cancer diagnosis is “deeply personal.” The Pentagon attributed the failure to a key employee who had the flu.

Mr Ryder said: “Hospital stay notification procedures have been reviewed to ensure we do better next time.”

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Giants on Tuesday ordered members of the president's cabinet to be notified when they are unable to perform their duties.

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