President Joe Biden first learned just on Tuesday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December and had undergone surgery to treat it, White House and Department of Defense officials revealed Tuesday.
Biden was first informed on Tuesday by his chief of staff, Jeff Zients, of the early December diagnosis and subsequent surgery on December 22, according to National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby.
The belated disclosure came after the Pentagon revealed on January 5 that Austin had been hospitalized on New Year’s Day, January 1, due to complications in what it described at the time as an “elective medical procedure.”
Austin was admitted to the hospital on December 22, underwent a prostatectomy, and was under general anesthesia during the procedure, the Pentagon said Tuesday. Austin recovered and went home the next morning. He had transferred some authorities to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, the Pentagon said.
However, on January 1, Austin suffered nausea with severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain. Initial evaluation revealed a urinary tract infection, and on January 1, he went to the intensive care unit, where evaluation revealed abdominal fluid collections impairing his small intestine function. A tube had to be placed through his nose to drain his stomach. During that stay, Austin never lost consciousness, the Pentagon said.
Sometime on January 2, Austin transferred some of his authorities to Hicks but did not inform her he was in the hospital until January 4, when he informed National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who then told Biden. He assumed full responsibility of his duties on January 5. However, it was not until January 9 that Austin informed Biden of his prostate cancer diagnosis and surgery back in December.
Austin’s failure to tell his boss about his cancer diagnosis and treatment has called into question Biden’s awareness of the whereabouts of his own defense secretary, particularly when the U.S. military is supporting Israel and Ukraine in the midst of hot wars, U.S. troops are being targeted nearly every day in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed proxy militia, and U.S. warships and commercial vessels are facing barrages of attacks in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels.
Members of Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — are furious about the breakdown in communication between Biden and Austin, noting that they are the only two members given National Command Authority, or the ability to transmit lawful orders to the military, at such a fraught time.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI), an Army veteran, scolded Austin in a sternly worded statement on Monday:
I remain concerned that vital chain of command and notification procedures were not followed while the Secretary was under medical care. He is taking responsibility for the situation, but this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the Department.
This lack of disclosure must never happen again. I am tracking the situation closely and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information.
The Pentagon on Tuesday announced it would investigate itself and vowed to do better. However, shortly after, news broke that the White House would conduct its own investigation of what happened and demanded that all agencies submit their protocols for delegation of authority.
However, those steps have not stemmed the simple question of how the commander-in-chief was not told sooner that his own defense secretary was incapacitated.
At the White House press briefing on Tuesday, Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy asked Kirby, “What kind of commander in chief is President Biden, that at a time when American forces are under fire in the Middle East, he can go days without knowing that his defense secretary is in a hospital?”
Kirby argued that “at no time was the ability for the United States military to defend our national security interest compromised, and at no time was the commander-in-chief not always in command and control of our military forces around the world.”
Doocy followed up by asking, “Why should we believe anything that this administration tells us about anything ever again?”
Kirby acknowledged that “this didn’t unfold the way it should have on so many levels, not just the notification process of the chain of command, but the transparency issue,” but defended Austin as “exceptional” and said Biden still had confidence in him.
However, he put the blame on Austin instead of Biden.
“What happened here is the secretary of defense for whatever reason — I can’t answer the question why — that information wasn’t shared widely in the department, and it certainly wasn’t shared with you,” Kirby told the press. “It’s certainly not good, which is why, again, we want to learn from this. We want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”