Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologized Thursday for not disclosing his prostate cancer diagnosis and subsequent hospital stay to President Joe Biden and other White House officials.
“I want to be crystal clear: We did not handle this right,” Austin said during a press conference at the Pentagon. “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.”
Austin, a 70-year-old former general, returned to the Pentagon this week after he was hospitalized in January due to a complication from a Dec. 22 procedure to treat his cancer. The Defense Department waited three days before informing Biden and other key officials of Austin’s diagnosis and hospital stay, the White House said.
“I’ve learned from this experience that taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect,” Austin said during Thursday’s press conference. “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 put Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks in charge during his hospitalization; she worked remotely from Puerto Rico. Austin said Thursday there were “no gaps in authority” and “no risk to the department’s command and control” during his absence.
“I can tell you I’ve apologized directly to President Biden,” he added. “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. And he has responded with a grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect.”
Austin said the Pentagon is conducting an internal review into its communications failure.