Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin diagnosed with prostate cancer

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer last month and developed complications from a minimally invasive procedure he underwent to treat and cure it, officials at Walter Reed National Military Center said Tuesday.

The complications led to Austin’s being admitted to Walter Reed on Jan. 1 and, eventually, the intensive care unit. Austin remained in the hospital Tuesday.

The Defense Department took three days to inform the White House and key defense officials about Austin’s hospitalization, prompting criticism and triggering a review of procedures about how the head of the military could be away from his duties for so long without senior members of the administration knowing.

President Joe Biden and other top White House officials learned about his hospitalization Thursday, but National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that neither Biden nor anyone else at the White House knew about Austin’s cancer diagnosis until Tuesday morning, hours before Walter Reed officials made the information public.

The cancer was discovered in early December in routine lab tests for prostate screening, Walter Reed officials said. The surgical procedure Austin underwent on Dec. 22 was a prostatectomy, during which he was “under general anesthesia.”

“Secretary Austin recovered uneventfully from his surgery and returned home the next morning. His prostate cancer was detected early, and his prognosis is excellent,” the officials said.

Austin, 70, was then admitted to Walter Reed on Jan. 1 “with complications from the December 22 procedure, including nausea with severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain,” the officials said.

An initial evaluation found that Austin had a urinary tract infection, and on Jan. 2, a decision was made to transfer him to the intensive care unit for “close monitoring and a higher level of care,” the statement said.

Doctors then discovered that Austin had “abdominal fluid collections impairing the function of his small intestines.”

“This resulted in the back up of his intestinal contents which was treated by placing a tube through his nose to drain his stomach,” the officials added. “The abdominal fluid collections were drained by non-surgical drain placement. He has progressed steadily throughout his stay.”

Officials said in the statement Tuesday that Austin’s “infection has cleared” and that “he continues to make progress and we anticipate a full recovery although this can be a slow process.” They said that during his subsequent hospitalization, Austin “never lost consciousness and never underwent general anesthesia.”

At a briefing Tuesday immediately after the statement was released, the Pentagon press secretary, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, told reporters that Austin “continues to recover well and is in good spirits.” He said the Defense Department will release daily status updates about Austin’s condition. Ryder said he hasn’t spoken with Austin and didn’t know why he hadn’t shared details about his illness earlier, but he said prostate cancer and its treatments are “deeply personal.”

Asked whether Austin would have to take a step back from his duties as defense chief, such as a rigorous travel schedule, Ryder said Austin “continues to monitor DoD’s operations worldwide” and “is actively engaged in his duties.”

Ryder said Austin is “not resigning,” and Kirby said at Tuesday’s White House briefing that Biden plans to stick with Austin through the rest of his presidential term.

The revelation about Austin’s condition is a new development after he and several of his aides waited days to notify the White House and key Pentagon officials that he had been hospitalized for complications following what was described as “an elective medical procedure.”

The public didn’t know he was hospitalized until Friday evening, when Ryder released a statement saying Austin had been admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday night for “complications following a recent elective medical procedure,” which he didn’t specify.

The Defense Department didn’t tell senior officials at the National Security Council about his hospitalization until Thursday.

On Jan. 2, a day after he was admitted, some of the secretary’s duties were transferred to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico. She wasn’t told, however, about Austin’s hospitalization until Thursday, a senior defense official said Sunday.

On Monday, Ryder told reporters that he was informed about Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 2, a day after he was admitted and two days before Biden and national security adviser Jake Sullivan were told. Ryder briefed reporters on camera Thursday and didn’t disclose Austin’s continued hospitalization. He didn’t provide further details — including whether he had been directed not to tell anyone.

Ryder also said Monday that the Pentagon’s lawyers were reviewing whether any laws were broken by this failure to notify U.S. leaders and Congress.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., announced a formal inquiry Tuesday into the lack of transparency surrounding Austin’s hospitalization.

Rogers said he wants Pentagon officials to provide details about any medical sedation or general anesthesia Austin received, in addition to any instructions not to inform people about his hospitalization and any official acts he performed during that period. Rogers is also asking Hicks and Austin’s chief of staff for specific details about what they knew and when, as well as their actions during that time.

Austin was diagnosed and hospitalized as tensions continued to intensify in the Middle East, including a rare and controversial strike by the U.S. against a senior Iranian-backed militia member in Baghdad.

The statement from Walter Reed noted 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.