Joe Biden did not learn that his defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, had prostate cancer until Tuesday, the White House has said, minutes after it was disclosed to the public along with news of an infection that had also been kept under wraps.
Austin prompted confusion followed by uproar when it emerged that he had recently, secretly been hospitalized for surgery and again later to treat a urinary tract infection related to that operation.
The 70-year-old Austin was admitted to Walter Reed national military medical center in Washington on 22 December and underwent surgery to treat the cancer. Austin developed the infection a week later, doctors disclosed on Tuesday. Senior administration and defense officials were not told for days about his hospitalization or his cancer.
He has been hospitalized since 1 January, with the Pentagon keeping the disclosure of that information from the public, the White House and Congress for much of last week, triggering a major political backlash.
It emerged on Tuesday that Austin’s own No 2, deputy defense secretary Kathleen Hicks, was also kept in the dark for days, even after she was told during a vacation in Puerto Rico to assume some of his duties on 2 January.
Austin and the US president had spoken on Saturday so it was unclear why Biden did not learn until Tuesday about his defense secretary’s prostate cancer.
Earlier on Tuesday, the White House chief of staff, Jeff Zients, had ordered cabinet members or secretaries to notify his office if they could not perform their duties, as the Biden administration, reeling from learning only last week of Austin’s surprise illness and hospitalization, mounts a policy review.
The White House said on Tuesday afternoon during the regular media briefing that Joe Biden plans to “stick with” Austin as defense secretary for the rest of his current term as US president. Biden is running for re-election with the vote scheduled for 5 November this year.
National security spokesman John Kirby praised Austin and said that “at no time” was the ability of the US to defend its national security compromised.
Austin’s prostate cancer treatment on 22 December required him to go under general anesthesia, but he retained consciousness during his latest hospital visit, according to a statement from Walter Reed.
The hospital gave an upbeat outlook for Austin but cautioned that his recovery could take time.
“His infection has cleared. He continues to make progress and we anticipate a full recovery although this can be a slow process,” it said in a statement released by the Pentagon.
On Tuesday afternoon, four Republican former military pilots serving in the House of Representatives called on Austin to resign – or be fired – for not promptly notifying the White House of his hospitalization.
Austin spent four days in the intensive care unit after he went back to the hospital on 1 January when he developed the infection.
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August Pfluger, Jake Ellzey, Mike Garcia and Scott Franklin wrote in a letter to Biden: “It is unacceptable and unconscionable that the principal cabinet member responsible for US national security would be absent without notice of leave … Secretary Austin’s duties require his availability at a moment’s notice to respond to potential national security crises.”
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, Zients 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.
A Pentagon spokesperson earlier blamed the mistake in not informing the White House or Congress about Austin’s situation on a key staffer being out sick with the flu.
“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’s 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.
The Associated Press contributed reporting
Source : The Guardian