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Biden unaware of Austin’s prostate cancer diagnosis until Jan 9: White House

In World
January 10, 2024

WASHINGTON – United States President Joe Biden did not learn his Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had prostate cancer until Jan 9, the White House said, minutes after it was disclosed to the public, along with an infection that was also kept under wraps.

Mr Austin, 70, has been hospitalised since Jan 1 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre – a fact that the Pentagon had kept from the public, the White House and Congress for much of last week, triggering a major political backlash.

Mr Austin’s own deputy 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 Jan 2.

“He (Biden) was not informed until last (Thursday) that Secretary Austin was in the hospital. He was not informed until this morning that the root cause of that hospitalisation was prostate cancer,” White House spokesman John Kirby said.

“Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning, and the president was informed immediately after.”

Mr Austin and Mr Biden spoke on Jan 6 but it was unclear why the president did not learn about the prostate cancer diagnosis until three days later.

“It is not optimal for a situation like this to go as long as it did without the commander-in-chief knowing about it or the national security adviser knowing about it, or frankly other leaders at the Department of Defence,” said Mr Kirby.

“It’s not the way this is supposed to happen… It’s not good. We want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Republicans seized on the incident as evidence of dereliction of duty by Mr Austin, a retired four-star general who led forces in Iraq and is America’s first Black defence secretary. The Republican who leads the House Armed Services Committee launched a formal inquiry.

“With wars in Ukraine and Israel, the idea that the White House and even your own Deputy did not understand the nature of your condition is patently unacceptable,” Representative Mike Rogers wrote in a letter to Mr Austin on Jan 9.

The White House insisted that Mr Biden was in control of his government despite not knowing about the cancer diagnosis until Jan 9.

During that period, he ordered a series of military actions including a strike on an Iraqi militia leader, while US forces successfully shot down missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Red Sea.

“He has been on on on top of these issues, all the way throughout,” Mr Kirby said.

Mr Austin was taken by ambulance on Jan 1 to Walter Reed after suffering complications from his Dec 22 prostate cancer treatment, including nausea with severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain. After he was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection, he was moved to an intensive care unit on Jan 2.

“Further evaluation revealed abdominal fluid collections impairing the function of his small intestines. This resulted in the back-up of his intestinal contents which was treated by placing a tube through his nose to drain his stomach,” the hospital said.

Mr Austin’s prostate cancer treatment on Dec 22 required him to go under general anaesthesia, but he has retained consciousness during his latest visit, according to a statement from Walter Reed.

Walter Reed gave an upbeat outlook for Mr 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.

Mr Austin sits just below Mr Biden at the top of the US military’s chain of command, and his duties require him to be available at a moment’s notice to respond to any national security crisis. That includes always being ready to enter secure communications with other officials in the event of an incoming nuclear attack, something that would be difficult from an ICU bed.

The Walter Reed statement was signed by Dr John Maddox, Trauma Medical Director, and Dr Gregory Chesnut, director of the Centre for Prostate Disease Research of the Murtha Cancer Centre at Walter Reed.

Mr Biden’s administration has struggled to quiet the political furore that has erupted following revelations that the president, who is running for re-election, did not know of his defence secretary’s Jan 1 hospitalisation until Jan 4.

The Pentagon initially said Mr Austin’s December treatment was for an elective medical procedure. It was not clear how prostate cancer treatment would be considered elective.

Some prominent Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, called for Mr Austin to be removed from his job.

But the Pentagon said the retired general had no plans to resign and the White House said Mr Biden was not seeking to remove him. Mr Austin remains at Walter Reed.

“The secretary continues to remain focused on recovering but more importantly, on carrying out his duties as secretary of defence and defending the nation,” Air Force Major-General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing.

The way the Defence Department handled Mr Austin’s hospitalisation stands in contrast to how the State Department dealt with then secretary of state Colin Powell’s prostate surgery on Dec 15, 2003.

The State Department spokesperson at that time issued a statement in the morning making public that Mr Powell, a retired four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in surgery at Walter Reed and would remain there for several days.

It also disclosed Mr Powell would be on a reduced schedule while he recovered from the operation. The department’s spokesperson at the time, Mr Richard Boucher, then offered details on Mr Powell’s surgery in his daily briefing.

Maj-Gen Ryder said the Pentagon would do better as the White House acknowledged damage to its credibility.

“I think the Pentagon has been very, very honest with themselves about the challenge to credibility by what has transpired here and by what and by how hard it was for them to be fully transparent with the American people,” Mr Kirby said.

White House chief of staff Jeff Zients on Jan 9 ordered an urgent review of the rules for when senior US officials are incapacitated amid the Austin row, according to a memo obtained by AFP.

“There’s an expectation that if a cabinet officer becomes hospitalised, and for whatever reason can’t continue to perform the duties even temporarily, that that will be notified up the chain of command to the commander in chief,” Mr Kirby added. REUTERS, AFP

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