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Defense Sec. Austin apologized directly to Biden over hospitalization controversy: ‘Did not handle this right’

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that he apologized directly to President Biden for not giving advance notice about his hospitalization for prostate cancer treatment. 

“I want to be crystal clear. We did not handle this right and I did not handle this right,” Austin said at a Pentagon press briefing on Thursday. “I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibility. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.”

“I want to make it very clear that there were no gaps in authorities and no risk to the department’s command and control,” he insisted, addressing concern about who was in control at the Department of Defense during a time of heightened tension in the Middle East. Austin returned to the Pentagon for the first time since his hospitalization on Monday – just a day after a drone strike by Iran-backed militants killed three U.S. service members and injured at least 40 others in Jordan at a post near the Syrian border. 

“At every moment, either I or the deputy secretary was in full charge,” Austin said. “And we’ve already put in place some new procedures to make sure that any lapses in notification don’t happen in the future if the deputy secretary needs to temporarily assume the duties of my office. She and several White House officers will be immediately notified, including the White House Situation Room, and so will key officials across the department. And the reason for that assumption of duties will be included in writing.” 

WHITE HOUSE ESTABLISHES GUIDELINES FOR CABINET NOTIFICATIONS FOLLOWING AUSTIN’S HOSPITALIZATION CONTROVERSY

Austin also said he apologized to Biden after the matter. 

“As a rule, I don’t talk about conversations with my boss, but I can tell you 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,” he said. “And he has responded with a grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect. And I’m grateful for his full confidence in me.” 

Austin rejected the notion that he would resign over the controversy. 

Fox News’ national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin noted that during the time that Austin was in the intensive care unit, there was a drone strike carried out against an Iraqi leader of a militia. 

“Do you regret that the authorities were not clear at that point? And what can you explain about what was going through your mind at that time?” Griffin asked during the press conference. “And then separately, there’s been a lot of telegraphing about targeting and responding to the drone strike, so much so that the Iranian proxy leaders have left the country. Some are back in Tehran. Has there been too much telegraphing or is the point not to kill any Iranian commanders?” 

Austin said the strike “was planned and I had made recommendations to the president on actions that we should carry out.”

“President made a decision. And based upon that decision, authorities were pushed down to the Central Command commander. And as you know, a strike like that, you can’t pick the precise time when that strike is going to take place. You want to minimize collateral damage. You want to make sure that you have everything right. And so the subordinate commander had the controls on that particular strike. So I was very much involved in the planning and the recommendation for that. And we knew that that would take place within a matter of days.” 

“In terms of telegraphing about strikes and whether or not people leave or what they left,” Austin said he would not speculate but said the U.S. vows a “multi-tiered response.” 

Austin denied he created what another reporter called a “culture of secrecy” at the department.

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The secretary explained that he had a “minimally invasive procedure” on Dec. 22, 2023, to treat his recently diagnosed prostate cancer. 

Unexpectedly, he said he felt severe pain in his leg, abdomen and hip on Jan. 1, and that evening an ambulance took him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where doctors found he needed treatment for several issues, including a bladder infection and abdominal problems. On Jan. 2, Austin recalled how he was also experiencing a fever, chills and shallow breathing, so medical staff transferred him to the critical care unit for several days for closer monitoring and better “team care by my doctors.” 

“The deputy secretary assumed the functions and duties of my office, which happens when necessary,” he said. “Her senior staff, my senior staff and the Joint Staff were notified of this through our regular email notification procedures, and I never directed anyone to keep my January hospitalization from the White House.” 

Austin said he resumed his functions and duties as secretary from the hospital on Jan. 5. 

“I was functioning well mentally, but not so well physically. And so I stayed at Walter Reed for additional time for additional treatment, including physical therapy, for some lingering issues with my leg,” he said. “Now, I’m offering all this as an explanation and not an excuse. I am very proud of what we’ve achieved at the department over the past three years, but we fell short on this one.” The Pentagon said Austin was released from Walter Reed on Jan. 15. 

Austin on Thursday also said he missed an opportunity to speak about an important health issue, one that especially impacts the Black community. 

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“I was diagnosed with a highly treatable form of cancer, a pretty common one. One in eight American men will get prostate cancer. One in six Black men will get it,” he said. “And so I’m here with a clear message to other men, especially older men. Get screened, get your regular check-ups. Prostate cancer has a glass jar. If your doctor can spot it, they can treat it and beat it. The side effects that I experienced are highly, highly unusual. So you can count on me to set a better example on this issue today and for the rest of my life.”