Defense Secretary Austin’s secret hospitalization was for prostate cancer, urinary tract infection, doctors say

White House chief of staff orders Cabinet members or secretaries to notify his office if they can't perform their duties

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has prostate cancer, and his recent secretive hospitalization was for surgery and later to treat a urinary tract infection related to that operation, doctors said Tuesday.

The 70-year-old Austin was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Dec. 22 and underwent surgery to treat the cancer. Austin developed the infection a week later. Senior administration and defense officials were not told for days about his hospitalization or his cancer.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington in October. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP, File)

According to the doctors, the cancer was detected when Austin had a regular screening in early December. They said he “underwent a minimally invasive surgical procedure” on Dec. 22 and went home the next day. But on Jan. 1 he reported nausea and severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain due to the infection.

They said his prostate cancer was detected early, and his prognosis is excellent.

Also Tuesday, the White House chief of staff ordered Cabinet members or secretaries to notify his office if they ever can’t perform their duties, as the Biden administration, reeling from learning of Austin’s illness last week, mounts a policy review.

Jeff Zients, in a memo to Cabinet secretaries, directed that they send the White House any existing procedures for delegating authority in the event of incapacitation or loss of communication by Friday. While the review is ongoing, he is requiring agencies to notify his office and the office of Cabinet affairs at the White House if an agency experiences or plans to experience a circumstance in which a Cabinet head can’t perform their duties.

The memo comes after President Joe Biden and other top officials weren’t informed for days that Austin had been hospitalized and had turned over power to his deputy. A Pentagon spokesman blamed the lapse on a key staffer being out sick with the flu.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement with Israel Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, after their meeting about Israel’s military operation in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. (AP photo/ Maya Alleruzzo)

“Agencies should ensure that delegations are issued when a Cabinet Member is traveling to areas with limited or no access to communication, undergoing hospitalization or a medical procedure requiring general anesthesia, or otherwise in a circumstance when he or she may be unreachable,” Zients’ memo states. It also requires that agencies document when any such transfer of authorities occurs and that the person serving in the acting role promptly establish contact with relevant White House staff.

A copy of the memo was obtained by the Associated Press.

Austin went to the hospital for what the Pentagon press secretary called an “elective procedure,” but one serious enough that Austin temporarily transferred some of his authorities to his deputy without telling her or other U.S. leaders why. He went home the following day.

He also transferred some of his authorities to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks after experiencing severe pain and being taken back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center by ambulance and put into intensive care on Jan. 1 — though Hicks was not told the reason for three days. The White House was not informed Austin was in the hospital until Jan. 4, and the public and Congress didn’t learn of it until a day later.

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The Pentagon has announced its own internal review and in a memo issued Monday broadened the circle of leaders who would be informed of any delegation of authorities by the defense secretary to ensure that, in the future, “proper and timely notification has been made to the President and White House and, as appropriate, the United States Congress and the American public.”

Going forward, any time authority is transferred a wider swath of officials will also be notified, to include the Pentagon’s general counsel, the chair and vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Combatant Commanders, service secretaries, the service chiefs of staff, the White House Situation Room, and the senior staff of the secretary and deputy secretary of defense.

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