WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December and had complications from a minimally invasive procedure he underwent to treat and cure it, Walter Reed National Army Center officials said Tuesday.
Complications led to Austin being admitted to Walter Reed on January 1, eventually the intensive care unit. Austin remained in the hospital Tuesday.
The Pentagon took three days to inform the White House and key security officials of Austin's hospitalization, prompting criticism and a review of procedures about how the military chief could be absent from his duties without senior members of the administration knowing.
President Joe Biden and other White House officials learned of her hospitalization on Thursday, but National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that neither Biden nor anyone in the White House knew about Austin's cancer diagnosis until Tuesday morning, hours before Walter Reed officials were informed. That information is public.
The cancer was discovered in early December during routine lab tests for prostate screening, Walter Reed officials said. Austin's surgery on December 22 was a prostatectomy, and Austin was under “general anesthesia.”
“Secretary Austin recovered smoothly from his surgery and returned home the next morning. His prostate cancer was diagnosed early and his prognosis is excellent,” officials said.
Austin, 70, was admitted to Walter Reed on Jan. 1 “with complications from a Dec. 22 procedure, including nausea with severe abdominal, pelvic and leg pain,” officials said.
Initial evaluation revealed he had a urinary tract infection, and on January 2, the decision was made to transfer Austin to the intensive care unit for “closer monitoring and a higher level of care.”
Doctors discovered that Austin had “abdominal fluid collections affecting the function of his small intestine.”
“This resulted in regurgitation of his bowel contents, which was treated by placing a tube through his nose to drain his stomach,” the officials added. “Abdominal fluid collections were drained with non-surgical drain placement. He progressed steadily throughout his stay.”
In a statement released Tuesday, Austin's “infection has cleared” and “he continues to make progress and we expect a full recovery, albeit a slow process.” While Austin was subsequently hospitalized, they said, “he never lost consciousness and was never put under general anesthesia.”
At a press conference Tuesday immediately after the report, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that the secretary “continues to be healthy and in good spirits.” He said the department would issue daily status updates on his condition. Ryder said he hasn't spoken to Austin and isn't sure why he didn't share details about his illness earlier, but said prostate cancer and its treatments are “deeply personal.”
When asked if Austin should take a step back from his duties as defense chief, such as a strict travel schedule, Ryder said Austin “continues to monitor DoD's activities around the world” and is “actively engaged in his duties.”
Rider said Austin “hasn't resigned,” and Kirby said at a White House briefing Tuesday that Biden plans to stick with Austin throughout his presidency.
The revelation about Austin's condition was a new development after the defense secretary and several of his aides waited days to notify White House and key Pentagon officials that he had been hospitalized for complications following what was described as an “elective medical procedure.”
The public did not learn of Ryder's hospitalization until Friday evening, when he released a statement saying that Austin had been admitted to Walter Reed National Army Medical Center Monday night for “complications following a recent elective medical procedure.” State what the procedure is.
The Defense Department did not tell senior officials at the National Security Council about the secretary's hospitalization until Thursday.
Last Tuesday, a day after he was admitted, some of the secretary's duties were transferred to Undersecretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico. However, she was not informed of Austin's hospitalization until Thursday, a senior security official said on Sunday.
On Monday, Ryder told reporters that Biden and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan were informed of Austin's hospitalization on Jan. 2, a day after he was admitted, two days earlier. Ryder briefed reporters on camera Thursday and did not disclose the secretary's continued hospitalization. He did not provide further details, including whether he was instructed not to tell anyone.
Ryder said Monday that Pentagon lawyers are reviewing whether any laws were broken when he failed to notify U.S. leaders and Congress.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers on Tuesday announced a formal investigation into the lack of transparency surrounding Austin's hospitalization.
The Alabama Republican demanded that Pentagon officials provide details of any medical sedation or general anesthesia Austin received, and advised the public not to inform the public of his hospitalization and any official activities he performed during this period. Rogers asks Hicks and Austin's chief of staff what they knew, when and specifics about their actions at the time.
Austin's diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization came as tensions continued to escalate in the Middle East, including a rare and controversial US strike against a senior Iranian-backed militant in Baghdad.
Walter Reed reports that prostate cancer is the most common cause of cancer among American men, affecting 1 in every 8 men and 1 in every 6 black men.
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