Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that his recent cancer diagnosis was a “gut punch” that left him shaken, disclosing new details about his ensuing medical crisis and asserting that he did not direct his staff to withhold the situation from the White House.
Austin, speaking to the media for the first time in about six weeks, said he was transported by ambulance from his home in Northern Virginia to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with a fever, chills, leg pain and shallow breathing Jan. 1 — 10 days after he privately underwent surgery there to treat prostate cancer. Neither President Biden nor most of the Pentagon staff were notified for days, a move for which Austin said he has apologized directly. He remained hospitalized for two weeks.
“I want to be crystal clear: We did not handle this right. I did not handle this right,” Austin said. “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 the American people.”
Austin’s public contrition appeared intended to demonstrate his desire to move on after a month of controversy. The backlash was a rare instance during Biden’s tenure as president when a Cabinet official looked out of step with the White House, frustrating some in the administration who, though sympathetic to Austin’s diagnosis, felt he and his staff exhibited exceedingly bad judgment that could prove costly in an election year.
Austin said his first instinct was to keep the diagnosis private and has learned that serving in such a high-profile job, as a member of the president’s Cabinet, means he has an obligation to be transparent. While several reviews are underway into how the situation was handled, the defense secretary said he does not believe he created an environment in which his staff would have decided it was best to keep such vital information from the White House.
“I don’t think I’ve created a culture of secrecy,” Austin said, later adding that he has not considered resigning, as some Republicans have demanded. His chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, who also has faced scrutiny for her role in the Pentagon’s failure to disclose Austin’s illness and did not attend the briefing, has not offered to resign either, he said.
Austin, 70, was noticeably thinner than before the health crisis, which put him in an intensive care unit for days. He walked gingerly to and from the podium in the Pentagon briefing room, and acknowledged using a golf cart in the building to help him get around. The news conference spanned nearly 40 minutes.
“I’m recovering well,” Austin said, “but as you can see, I’m still recovering.”
His appearance before reporters came three days after his return to the Pentagon, and nearly a week after three U.S. soldiers were killed in a drone attack in northeastern Jordan. Biden has promised to retaliate for the violence, which left dozens of others personnel wounded, and Austin reaffirmed Thursday that a response is coming.
“The president will not tolerate attacks on American troops — and neither will I,” he said during his prepared remarks.
U.S. officials have blamed an umbrella group of Iranian-backed militias, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, for the fatal attack Sunday in Jordan. It is one of more than 165 attacks on U.S. forces in the region since October, when Israel’s war in Gaza triggered wider violence. The militias, backed by Iranian weapons and training, have cited the conflict — and steadfast U.S. support for Israel — as justification for their assaults that have injured dozens of troops in other locations.
The absence of military action since the attack has prompted critics to say the Biden administration is telegraphing its plan and allowing both Iran and the proxy groups responsible too much time to prepare. Austin, echoing other senior U.S. officials, said to expect a “multitiered response,” but also indicated that the administration remains concerned about preventing a wider regional war.
Austin called the attack in Jordan “egregious” because it targeted sleeping quarters on the base, known as Tower 22. At this point, Austin said, “it is time” to take away military capability from these militias to prevent future attacks.
“They have a lot of capability,” Austin said. “I have a lot more.”
The handling of Austin’s diagnosis is likely to continue to dog the Defense Department in coming weeks, as reviews by Austin’s staff, the Defense Department inspector general and the White House conclude. Congressional lawmakers also have pressed for information.
Austin declined to say whether he will agree to attend hearings on the matter. Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a letter to Austin last month that he has “grave concerns” about how Austin’s absence was handled and requested that he address lawmakers’ concerns about it.
“Congress has had some very relevant questions that they’ve asked us, and we will continue to answer those questions,” Austin said. “We’ll continue to work with Chairman Rogers’s office to address any additional questions or issues he might have.”
Austin said that he can now be counted on to “set a better example” by discussing his diagnosis more frankly. Asked if he regretted possibly reinforcing secrecy among other prostate cancer patients — and the Black community, which suffers disproportionately from it — he said, “It’s probably not an issue of secrecy as much as it’s an issue of privacy.”
“Cancer, period, is very private,” he said, adding that “among the Black community … it’s even more a thing that people want to … keep private.”
“In my case, I should have informed my boss. I did not,” Austin said. “And again, I apologized to him for not doing so.”
Austin sought to use humor at times Thursday, joking that he thinks his physical therapy specialist is a “sadist.”
“I won’t be ready for the Olympics,” he said, “but I’ll improve.”
Austin’s illness occurred as the Biden administration contended with intensifying violence across the Middle East, a significant challenge to the president’s goal of containing instability linked to Israel’s war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The Pentagon has conducted a series of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks and has opened a military campaign against other Iranian-backed militants in Yemen who have upended commercial shipping off the Arabian Peninsula through numerous attacks on merchant ships.
Austin defended the U.S. and British strikes in Yemen, saying that there are “others in the world that are watching this” to see whether the United States and its allies will fight to keep international waterways open to everyone.
“We’re either going to be serious about the freedom of navigation … or we’re not,” Austin said.
On Thursday, U.S. forces downed a drone over the Gulf of Aden and carried out strikes to destroy an uncrewed surface vehicle that was packed with explosives in the Red Sea, officials said. The small craft was heading toward the international shipping lane, posing a threat to merchant vessels and U.S. Navy warships, according to a statement. Later in the day, two anti-ship ballistic missiles were launched from Yemen, likely at a Liberian-flagged cargo ship, but fell harmlessly into the water.
Austin also defended U.S. support for Israel, as heavy bombardment continues in Gaza and more than 27,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed. There is “no question,” he said, that this is a “tough conflict,” but the Israelis are shifting to a more “discrete set of objectives.”
“I emphasize the importance of protecting civilian lives,” Austin said. “I also emphasize the importance … of providing humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. It’s critical.”