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Austin treated for prostate cancer, Pentagon reveals

Biden not notified until Tuesday; lawmakers seek hearing on transparency

Defense Secretary Lloyd  Austin, shown at a budget hearing in May 2023,  didn't notify the White House or Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks about his surgery in December, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, shown at a budget hearing in May 2023, didn't notify the White House or Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks about his surgery in December, a Pentagon spokesman said. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has been hospitalized since Jan. 1 due to complications from surgery to treat prostate cancer, according to a statement from his doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that was released by the Pentagon on Tuesday.

Austin is expected to make a full recovery from the complications — a seemingly severe urinary tract infection and buildup of abdominal fluid that prompted doctors to transfer Austin to Walter Reed’s intensive care unit. His doctors described his Dec. 22 surgery, called a prostatectomy, as intended to treat and cure his prostate cancer, which was first identified in early December.

But questions remained over the lack of transparency from Austin and the Pentagon on his condition, which the White House, Congress and many top military leaders weren’t informed of until days into hospitalization. Some lawmakers pushed for a public hearing on the issue, and others went so far as to call for Austin’s resignation.

[Pentagon’s handling of Austin hospitalization roils Congress]

Austin was under anesthesia for the Dec. 22 procedure, but has not lost consciousness since his hospitalization on Jan. 1, according to his doctors.

But Austin didn’t notify the White House or Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks about his surgery in December, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday during a press briefing.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday during a news conference that President Joe Biden did not learn of Austin’s prostate cancer diagnosis until this morning.

Kirby also explained that Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, learned of Austin’s hospitalization “late Thursday afternoon” and, along with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, informed the president of that Thursday evening.

In addition, the White House was not informed of the delegation of authority for the original hospitalization. “One of the things we’re all going to want to learn from this is the notification process for that delegation authority,” Kirby said.

The White House has said it would not accept Austin’s resignation even if he were to offer it.

“I think we all recognize, and I think the Pentagon has been very, very honest with themselves about the … challenge to credibility and what has transpired here,” Kirby said. “We all recognize that this didn’t unfold the way it should have on so many levels — not just the notification process up the chain of command, but the transparency issue.”

During another news conference on Tuesday, Ryder said the Defense Department would conduct a 30-day internal review of its own handling of Austin’s treatment and subsequent hospitalization, and that Austin had taken full responsibility for the transparency issues surrounding his health.

Austin’s handling of his health issues has also prompted the White House to review its agency protocols for the delegation of authority from Cabinet members, according to an internal memo from Zients obtained by CQ Roll Call.

In the latest indication of just how far the congressional fallout from Austin’s hospitalization might go, House Armed Services Chairman Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., on Tuesday launched a formal inquiry into the Defense secretary’s lack of transparency on his health and how the Pentagon handled his absence.

In letters to Austin, Hicks, and Austin’s Chief of Staff Kelly Magsamen, Rogers sought answers to three separate batteries of questions related to the trio’s whereabouts, communications with others and handling of the situation.

“My colleagues and I have grave concerns about the handling of your absence and hospitalization. It is unacceptable that neither the Department of Defense, the White House, nor the Congress were accurately informed of your position or capacity. With wars in Ukraine and Israel, the idea that the White House and even your own deputy did not understand the nature of your condition is patently unacceptable,” Rogers wrote.

Rogers called Austin’s handling of the situation “outrageous,” and said the Defense Department, while a “robust institution,” was “not designed for a secretary who conceals being incapacitated.”

Rogers’ concerns were echoed by other GOP lawmakers.

“I am glad Secretary Austin’s prognosis is good and he is expected to make a full recovery, but the underlying questions remain. The Secretary’s condition is severe. The failure to notify Congress of his inability to perform his duties was a clear violation of the law. It remains unclear who decided to ignore federal law but there must be accountability. An internal review — ordered by the same Chief of Staff who played a part in this crisis – is woefully inadequate,” said Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., in a prepared statement.

Senate Armed Services Committee member Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he too would support a public hearing.

“There’s got to be more transparency, and a rigorous focus on a functional chain of command. There’s got to be a lot more explained,” Sullivan said, calling the issue a bipartisan concern.

Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, who also serves on the Armed Services panel, said lawmakers “deserved answers” about Austin’s condition and what happened to him between his surgery and subsequent hospitalization.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., agreed with the sentiment, and called the Pentagon’s handling of the situations “pretty disappointing” and “disastrous.”

“But clearly there’s a need for accountability as to who made the decision to withhold this information from the president as well as Congress about what can be done to prevent these kinds of problems in the future,” Blumenthal said.

Briana Reilly, Caroline Coudriet and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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