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White House Backs Austin As Pentagon Chief Treated For Prostate Cancer

The defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, has prostate cancer and his recent secretive hospitalization was for surgery and later to treat a urinary tract infection related to that operation, doctors said on Tuesday.

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. Senior administration and defense officials were not told for days about his hospitalization or his 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.

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 (ICU) after he went back to the hospital on 1 January when he developed the infection.

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.

The memo comes after Biden and other top officials were not informed for days that Austin had been hospitalized and had turned over power to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks. A Pentagon spokesperson blamed the lapse on a key staffer being out sick with the flu.

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“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.

Austin went to the hospital for what the Pentagon press secretary called an “elective procedure” but one serious enough that Austin temporarily transferred some of his authorities to his deputy, without telling US leaders why. He went home the following day.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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