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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was hospitalized for infection related to surgery for prostate cancer, Pentagon says

Defense secretary treated for prostate cancer
Defense secretary hospitalized after prostate cancer treatment 02:34

Washington — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was hospitalized to treat an infection that was related to earlier surgery for prostate cancer, his doctors said in a statement released by the Pentagon on Tuesday.

The statement from officials at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center provides new details about Austin's hospitalization amid a growing controversy over the Pentagon's failure to notify the White House and Congress about his condition for several days.

The prostate cancer was detected early last month and Austin underwent a "minimally invasive procedure" on Dec. 22 to treat and cure the cancer, according to the officials. He was placed under general anesthesia and "recovered uneventfully" from the surgery, the statement said. The cancer "was detected early, and his prognosis is excellent," the officials said.

Officials did not provide further details on the specifics of the procedure. CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jonathan LaPook noted, "When you take out the entire prostate, it is a major operation," despite the Pentagon and officials from Walter Reed calling the procedure "elective" and "minimally invasive."

While at home on Jan. 1, Austin began experiencing "nausea with severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain" and was readmitted to Walter Reed, according to the statement. He was found to have a urinary tract infection and was transferred to the ICU the next day, where further testing revealed abdominal fluid that was obstructing his small intestine. Doctors placed a tube through his nose to drain his stomach.

LaPook said Austin's complications were "unusual."

"Usually these surgeries, they are big operations, but people recover very well and generally without any kind of a complication like this," LaPook added.

Austin's doctors said he "has progressed steadily throughout his stay. His infection has cleared. He continues to make progress and we anticipate a full recovery although this can be a slow process. During this stay, Secretary Austin never lost consciousness and never underwent general anesthesia."

The controversy

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a joint press conference with Israel's defence minister in Tel Aviv on Dec. 18, 2023.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a joint press conference with Israel's defence minister in Tel Aviv on Dec. 18, 2023. ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

The Pentagon did not tell the White House, lawmakers or Austin's second in command about his Jan. 1 hospitalization for several days, prompting a growing chorus of criticism as more information has emerged.

Several Pentagon officials, including Austin's chief of staff and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, learned Austin had been hospitalized the next day, on Jan. 2, according to Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks assumed some of Austin's duties that day but was not told that he was hospitalized until Jan. 4, when she was in Puerto Rico.

Austin's chief of staff informed the White House about Austin's hospitalization that same day, and the Senate Armed Services Committee learned about it one day later, on Jan. 5.

The delay in notifying officials was partly due to Austin's chief of staff being sick with the flu, Ryder said Monday.

When pressed by reporters on why the chief of staff, even if sick, was unable to make notifications sooner, Ryder replied, "I'm offering you the facts as we have them, in terms of an explanation of how this happened and also the fact that we will review our procedures and look at how we can do better in the future."

The secrecy over Austin's condition has prompted calls for his firing or resignation.

"It's a little crazy that we effectively lost track of arguably the second most important person in the government, which is the secretary of defense," Republican Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio said Tuesday. "So I think it reflects really poorly on the White House. It reflects very poorly on the leadership, the Department of Defense. And if this isn't cause for resignation, and actually finding somebody who can do the job, I don't know what is." 

GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday night he was launching an investigation into Austin's failure to disclose the hospitalization. In letters to Austin, Hicks and Austin's chief of staff, Rogers asked for a detailed accounting — including documents and communications — of how the situation unfolded and actions taken related to Austin's responsibilities while he was hospitalized.

Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested there would be a hearing soon on the matter. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the chairman of the committee, said Monday in a statement that "this lack of disclosure must never happen again." 

President Biden has said he has full confidence in Austin, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that remains the case during a press briefing on Tuesday. Jean-Pierre said Mr. Biden learned of Austin's prostate cancer diagnosis on Tuesday morning.

The White House and Pentagon are reviewing their notification processes and procedures for when a Cabinet secretary falls ill. 

In a memo to Cabinet secretaries obtained by CBS News, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients outlined interim procedures for agencies to follow until new guidelines are established.

The procedures include notifying the Offices of Cabinet Affairs and the White House chief of staff when authority is delegated, or anticipated to be delegated. The delegation of authority should be documented in writing when it's in effect, the memo said. 

"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," the memo said. 

The memo was first reported by The New York Times. 

David Martin, Alan He and Nancy Cordes contributed to this report.. 

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