Austin apologizes for keeping hospitalization secret

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologized for keeping his recent hospitalization hidden from the White House and the American people.

“We did not handle this right. I did not handle this right,” he told reporters Thursday in his first news conference since his secret hospitalization and since the deadly drone attack in Jordan that killed three American soldiers

He said he was proud of the work the Defense Department has done, “but we fell short on this one,” and he added he apologized directly to President Biden, who, he said received his apology with the “grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect.” He also said he never directed any of his staff to hide his hospitalization. 

Austin, who said he is still experiencing some leg pain and is for now using a golf cart to move around inside  the Pentagon, said that his prostate cancer diagnosis “was a gut punch.” “The news shook me, and I know that it shakes so many others, especially in the Black community,” he admitted to reporters. 

He admitted “my first instinct was to keep it private,” adding he doesn’t like “to burden others,” but he  conceded that his role in the administration means “losing some of the privacy most of us expect.” A “wider circle should have been notified,” he said, especially the president. He noted that the Pentagon is conducting an internal review, and there is also an ongoing inspector general review.

On Sunday, Austin issued a statement in response to their deaths by warning the U.S. “will respond at a time and place of our choosing.” CBS News has learned that plans have been approved for a series of retaliatory strikes in Iraq or Syria potentially over several days. 

In the news conference Thursday, Austin is likely to face questions about the drone attack, ongoing tensions in the Middle East and his recent hospitalization and cancer diagnosis, which he hid from the White House, Congress and the public. 

Austin was released from the hospital on Jan. 15 and returned to work in person at the Pentagon on Monday. He was hospitalized on New Year’s Day, following complications from a recent surgery to treat and cure prostate cancer. Neither Austin nor his staff informed the White House or the public for several days that he had been hospitalized and spent time in the ICU. 

In a written statement, he took “full responsibility” for decisions made about disclosing his health, but Thursday is his first opportunity to tell the public why he made those decisions.