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We now know why Defense Secretary Austin has been hospitalized

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We finally know why U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been in the hospital for the past week. He was suffering from complications following surgery for prostate cancer back on December 22.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What remains unclear is why he took so long to tell people. Even the White House didn't know, according to spokesman John Kirby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning.

INSKEEP: Kirby was talking on Tuesday, January 9, more than two weeks after Austin went into the hospital.

MARTIN: For more on this, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So would you just start by summarizing - excuse me - the medical details we've now learned?

MYRE: Yeah. So doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center say this really began about a month ago, when Austin was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer. And then on December 22, he was given a general anesthetic and underwent what doctors described as minimally invasive surgery to remove his prostate gland. Austin went home the next day. His prognosis was described as excellent. All seemed well, though none of this was made public. But he suffered severe stomach, hip and leg pain. On January 1, he was taken back to Walter Reed, and doctors in the intensive care unit determined he had a urinary tract infection. He's now on the mend and has been working from the hospital.

MARTIN: OK. So Secretary Austin is recovering. That's good news. But this whole question of disclosure - let's just set the public aside. Why wasn't the White House and other people who are in the national security leadership made aware of this - I mean, people at least who'd have to make decisions if he were not in a position to do so?

MYRE: Yeah. Michel, that's really not clear. We haven't had a good explanation. It just - it's kind of a muddled story that keeps dribbling out. And here's sort of the quick timeline. On January 2, the day after he went back to the hospital, the No. 2 at the Pentagon, Kathleen Hicks, was put in charge temporarily, though she was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time. Two more days passed, and on January 4, the White House said it first learned that Austin was back at Walter Reed. The first public mention came a day later, on January 5. And then yesterday brought this additional surprise that the White House said it just learned Austin had cancer. But this was five days after the White House said it knew he was in the hospital.

MARTIN: All right. So, Greg, so, you know, performative outrage is something that we've become very accustomed to in Washington. But even apart from that, is there likely to be any fallout for Secretary Austin or the Pentagon from the people who presumably matter most - I mean, the White House, for example?

MYRE: Well, so far, no repercussions. The White House is saying that Secretary Austin will stay in his position. But obviously, it's been pretty embarrassing and a lot of head-scratching about the way it's handled. We know Austin is a very private person. He doesn't relish the spotlight. But this information certainly needed to be shared with others in the White House or the national security community. And we should note that President Biden was out of the country over New Year's in the U.S. Virgin Islands. U.S. national security teams were closely tracking two wars - Israel-Hamas and the Russia-Ukraine war.

MARTIN: Is this prompting any new protocols for the next time something like this comes up?

MYRE: Well, seems so. White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients on Tuesday said the more than 20 Cabinet secretaries all need to submit in writing their current protocols if they face this kind of scenario.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Sure thing, Michel. 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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.