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Austin apologizes for mishandling communication around his cancer treatment


By Oren Liebermann and Haley Britzky, CNN

(CNN) — US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday admitted he mishandled communication around his treatment for prostate cancer and apologized to his colleagues and the American public in his first news conference since returning to work.

“I want to be crystal clear: We did not handle this right. And I did not handle this right. 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,” Austin said. “I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.”

Austin, who entered the Pentagon briefing room on Thursday with a visible limp, emphasized that at no point was there a break down in the military chain of command. He also said the news of his diagnosis “shook” him and his first instinct “was to keep it private.”

“As a rule, I don’t talk about conversations with my boss, but I can tell you I have apologized directly to President Biden. And I’ve told him that I’m deeply sorry for not letting him know immediately that I received a heavy diagnosis and was getting treatment,” Austin said. “And he has responded with a grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect.”

Austin’s unannounced hospitalization, which was not disclosed to the media or Biden and other senior administration officials for days, raised major questions about transparency and communications within the Biden administration. Republicans have been highly critical of how the Pentagon handled Austin’s illness and the House Armed Services Committee has called on the defense secretary to testify about the failure to notify key government leaders.

Austin added that he “never directed anyone to keep my January hospitalization from the White House.”

“I was being treated for prostate cancer, the news shook me, and I know that it shakes so many others especially in a Black community,” Austin said.

“Frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private. I don’t think it’s news that I’m a pretty private guy, I never like burdening others with my problems. It’s just not my way. But I’ve learned from this experience, taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect. The American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties even temporarily,” Austin added.

First questions since December

Austin last took questions from the media more than one month ago on December 20 when he visited the USS Gerald R. Ford, an aircraft carrier operating in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Two days later after returning to the United States, Austin underwent a surgery to treat his prostate cancer diagnosis, a procedure which required general anesthesia and an overnight stay.

His surgery and hospital stay, as well as his diagnosis with prostate cancer in early-December, was not revealed to the president and to senior administration officials until after the New Year when he was hospitalized a second time for complications from the surgery.

Austin was taken to the hospital by an ambulance on New Year’s Day; an audio recording of the 911 call revealed an aide asking the dispatcher to have the ambulance “not show up with lights and sirens” so they could “remain a little subtle.” Austin, however, said on Thursday that he did not direct his aide to do “anything further than just call the ambulance.”

Austin remained in the hospital for two weeks, leaving on January 15. He then worked from home until this past Monday, when he returned to the Pentagon for a bilateral meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

At the time, Austin said, “I feel good and recovering well, but still recovering.”

Biden acknowledged earlier this month that Austin’s failure to notify him about his hospitalization was a lapse in judgment.

Asked Thursday why he believed it was appropriate not to tell Biden of his diagnosis, Austin said he had not decided to have the December 22 procedure to treat his prostate cancer until “very close to when the procedure was done.”

“In terms of informing the president, again, I admit that was a mistake to not talk to him about that early on. When you’re the president of the United States, you got a lot of things on your plate. And so putting my personal issue, adding to his all the things that he’s got on his plate, I just didn’t feel that that was a thing that I should do at the time,” he said.

Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, directed a 30-day review of the Pentagon’s processes and procedures for notifying senior national security leaders and the White House when the Defense secretary needs to transfer authorities to the deputy secretary, which was required during Austin’s hospitalization. The Defense Department Inspector General launched a separate investigation of whether the Pentagon had the appropriate policies in places to ensure an effective transfer or power and duties.

Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters in January that Magsamen was sick with the flu at the time of Austin’s hospitalization, which is why she was unable to notify the White House and other officials. Austin said Thursday that Magsamen has not offered her resignation.

Austin also said Thursday that by not disclosing his diagnosis, he “missed an opportunity to send a message on an important public health issue.”

“One in eight American men will get prostate cancer, one in six Black men will get it,” Austin said. “And so I’m here with a clear message to other men, especially older men: get screened, get your regular checkups. … If your doctor can spot it, they can treat it and beat it. And the side effects that I experienced are highly, highly unusual.”

“So you can count on me to set a better example on this issue today and for the rest of my life.”

‘Multi-tiered response’ to deadly drone attack

Speaking about the deadly drone attack on a US outpost in Jordan last weekend, Austin said the Pentagon is “united in our outrage and sorrow” over the deaths of three American soldiers and wounding of dozens of other service members.

“Our fallen soldiers had a vital mission to support Operation Inherent Resolve and to work with our partners to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS. They risked their lives, and lost their lives, to keep their fellow Americans safe from global terrorism,” he said. “The President will not tolerate attacks on American troops, and neither will I.”

There have been more than 160 attacks against US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria since October 17. The attack on Tower 22 on Sunday, however, was the first time US service members have been killed since October.

The fatal attack further fueled concerns that already-high tensions in the Middle East — including ongoing attacks on commercial shipping by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, and Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza that has killed thousands of civilians – could boil over into broader conflict in the region.

Austin said the US would “work to avoid a wider conflict in the region,” but called the attack on Tower 22 “egregious” and said it was “time to take away even more capability than we have in the past” from the Iran-backed groups.

“I would just tell you that, you know, we will have a multi-tiered response,” he said. “And, again, we have the ability to respond a number of times, depending on what the situation is.”

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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