Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin admitted he mishandled his cancer diagnosis, procedure and re-hospitalization in a rare press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday.

Austin was readmitted to the hospital on Jan. 1 after experiencing complications from a Dec. 22 procedure to treat prostate cancer, but neither his deputy nor President Joe Biden learned of it until Jan. 4. The cancer diagnosis earlier that month had come as a “gut punch,” Austin said in the Pentagon on Thursday, admitting that his desire for privacy mistakenly overrode his obligation to inform his boss and the American public of a health condition that might affect his ability to carry out his duties.

“We did not handle this right. I did not handle this right,” Austin said.

“A wider circle should have been notified, especially the president,” he said.

Austin added that he never explicitly instructed any of his staff to conceal these events, but could not take responsibility for any decisions they may have made on his behalf.

When Austin experienced unusual complications from his surgery, including pain in the legs and abdomen, a staffer called an ambulance to transport him from his Great Falls, Virginia, home to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

The staffer who made the initial 911 call told the dispatcher “we’re trying to remain a little subtle”, according to highly-redacted audio recording obtained by the DCNF and other news outlets.

Austin punted away from questions about the call and other areas where the chain of command or communication may have broken down to two ongoing reviews, which are set to wrap up soon.

The public did not learn of his hospitalization until Jan. 5, shortly after Congress was notified and just one day after Biden, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks and top national security officials received the news. He resumed full duties as secretary of defense that same day, but Hicks, who was on vacation at the time, already carried out some responsibilities without knowing the reason for the transfer of powers.

He said he had apologized to the president for failing to personally disclose the news, and that Biden had “responded with a grace and warmth.”

“Frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private,” he said. “But I’ve learned from this experience taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect.”

Lawmakers have called for Austin’s resignation over the incident.

Austin returned to work at the Pentagon for the first time on Monday, nearly a month after his hospitalization. Thursday’s public appearance follows a month of intense conflict in the Middle East, including an Iranian-backed militia attack on Jan. 28 that killed three U.S. troops and injured at least 40.

Biden administration officials have hinted at a sweeping response for the past several days.

“We will have a multi tiered response. And, again, we have the ability to, to respond a number a number of times, depending on what the situation is,” Austin said.

Micaela Burrow on February 1, 2024

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