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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologizes for keeping hospital stay, diagnosis secret


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met the press in the Pentagon briefing room for the first time in a year. Austin just returned from three weeks of recuperating from prostate cancer and its complications. The defense secretary had come under sharp criticism for keeping his diagnosis and hospitalization secret from Pentagon colleagues and the White House. Today he apologized.


LLOYD AUSTIN: 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.

KELLY: NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, was there for that briefing. He's here now. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So Secretary Austin had already put out a statement in writing. He took full responsibility. What else did he have to add today?

BOWMAN: Well, he told reporters he's a private kind of person, saying he didn't want to burden the president. He looked quite thin, walked slowly to the podium, is using a golf cart to get around the Pentagon. But he also didn't answer a number of questions. We still don't know which staffers were aware he was in the hospital on December 22, then again on January 1, and why they didn't tell the White House. I asked him that question. Let's listen.


BOWMAN: What about December 22 when you went to the hospital the first time, was your staff aware? And if so, why didn't they tell the White House?

AUSTIN: When I went to the hospital on December 22, it was - I went in for that procedure. My duties were transferred to the deputy. That was planned. And I decided to stay in the hospital overnight - didn't have to - decided to stay there overnight because of the anesthesia that was involved. And then the next day, later in the afternoon, early evening, we transferred authorities back.

BOWMAN: So, as you can hear, he didn't answer the question. I pressed him twice. And now we do know his duties were transferred to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, while he was in the hospital. Well, who told Hicks? And why didn't that person inform the White House. Officials there, as well as Hicks, weren't aware he'd been hospitalized until a few days after he went into the hospital, Mary Louise, a second time for complications on January 1. Austin's office is looking into this communications breakdown, and so is the Pentagon inspector general. Also, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers of Alabama, wants Austin to appear on February 14, saying he's not been forthcoming.

KELLY: OK. Questions about the secretary's health aside, let me turn you to all the other things I'm sure he was getting questioned about. Did he talk about the three soldiers killed last week in that drone strike by Iran-backed militias?

BOWMAN: You know, he did. And he mourned the loss of the three Army reservists from Georgia. And he said, the president will not tolerate attacks on American troops; neither will I. Secretary Austin said he wants to hold those who attack troops accountable, protect American troops and manage things so they don't escalate, or as he said, don't spiral out of control. The problem is, clearly, the U.S. is planning greater military action that we've seen in the airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen and the militias in Iraq and Syria. So we are looking, in the coming days, at an escalation by anyone's definition.

KELLY: NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.