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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is being treated for prostate cancer

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're getting some answers today to the questions that have been swirling around the health of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. This question started after it was revealed that Austin was admitted to Walter Reed Hospital on January 1 and that key officials, including the president, were unaware of the Secretary's hospitalization until days afterwards. Well, today Austin's doctors revealed that he was being treated for prostate cancer and complications from a resulting surgical procedure. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here with the latest. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Details just trickling out this afternoon. It's moving so quickly. What can you tell us right now?

BOWMAN: Well, let's start with what Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder told us this afternoon.

PAT RYDER: The department recognizes the understandable concerns expressed by the public, Congress and the news media in terms of notification timelines and DOD transparency.

BOWMAN: Well, so Secretary Austin was treated for prostate cancer at Walter Reed Hospital on December 22, underwent a prostatectomy, was under general anesthetic. And we're also learning for the first time about this, and the White House was not informed about this. Austin did delegate his authority to his deputy at that time. So then there were complications as a result of the surgery. On the night of January 1, Austin had some pain in his legs and abdomen, and it turns out he had a urinary infection and went to intensive care at Walter Reed for monitoring. Officials said he's still in the hospital and his prognosis is excellent but, again - a lot of questions here.

SHAPIRO: Valuable information that it seems like maybe important people should have had before now. I mean, to say the obvious, this is not the way we usually learn about public officials' health problems, right?

BOWMAN: No, it's absolutely astounding. And there are many, many questions here. Secretary Austin is very private, rarely talks to the press or is in public. There have been times in the past when defense secretaries like Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, you know, suffered broken bones - public was notified immediately. And, Ari, just recently, the top Marine Corps general, Eric Smith, suffered a heart attack. The public was immediately informed and kept up to date on his medical condition.

Again, we're talking the defense secretary here, the top military adviser to the president at a time of war in the Middle East with American troops sometimes engaging with militant groups in that region. The White House said President Biden only learned today the secretary was being treated for prostate cancer. Now, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said there were shortfalls here. And he said we have to do a better job. And I spoke with one retired official who said, listen. This is either bad judgment or a breakdown in communications. Either way, this official called it very weird.

SHAPIRO: What do we know about how the breakdown in communication happened and who knew what when?

BOWMAN: Well, that's still kind of confusing, too. We know Austin was transferred by ambulance to Walter Reed in the night of January 1. The next day, the staff was told. And his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was - you know, basically took over as his acting secretary. But she was never told he was in the hospital. She was in Puerto Rico and wasn't told until a couple of days later that he was, in fact, in the hospital. She offered to come home. And they said, don't worry. He's going to take back his duties on Friday. But, again, people were just left unaware, including the president of the United States.

SHAPIRO: And in a sentence or two, what's the reaction been from the White House and the Hill?

BOWMAN: Well, Democrats and Republicans on the Hill want answers. They want to know what his condition is, why people weren't notified. They're very, very upset. Ari, you're likely going to see hearings on this.

SHAPIRO: 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.
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