‘I Did Not Handle This Right’: Defense Secretary Apologizes for Scandal Over Secret Hospitalization

Defense secretary Lloyd Austin (CSPAN)
February 1, 2024

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologized Thursday for not handling "right" a hospitalization last month he initially did not disclose either to the American people or to President Joe Biden.

Austin was hospitalized with a urinary tract infection on New Year's Day, a complication from a December procedure he underwent to treat prostate cancer. Days passed before the White House or the public became aware of his condition.

"We did not handle this right. I did not handle this right," Austin said at a press conference. "I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should've also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibility. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people."

The defense secretary stressed in the press conference that "there were no gaps in authorities and no risk to the department's command and control" during his stay. He said his "first instinct" after his diagnosis was to "keep it private" and committed to ensuring that there are no more "lapses in notification." He added that he has apologized to Biden directly.

During the press conference, Austin gave a full account of his health problems from late December until his release from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He did not tell any staff to conceal his condition from the White House, he said.

Biden did not know of Austin's hospitalization until three days after the secretary entered Walter Reed, and the American public found out the next day by way of a Pentagon press release. That statement did not say specifically why Austin was in the hospital, just that he had complications from an earlier "elective" procedure. Doctors later revealed that he had a urinary tract infection and a collection of fluid in his abdomen—and that those complications arose after his treatment for prostate cancer. He left the hospital two weeks after he entered.

The administration said early on in the affair that Biden would not fire Austin, though Republicans and at least one Democrat called for his job. Austin's hospitalization came amid attacks on American troops from Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria, as well as from Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.