U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin addressed the media on Thursday in his first press conference following his initially undisclosed medical incapacitation earlier this month.
Alternating between questions about his personal health and the widening crisis in the Middle East, Austin apologized for failing to properly inform U.S. President Joe Biden, his colleagues at the Pentagon and the American people of his hospitalization following surgery for prostate cancer in December.
“I did not handle this right. I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibility,” he said. “I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.”
Austin underwent minor surgery in December that required anesthesia and a one-night stay in the hospital. On Jan. 1, he was readmitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with an infection and was transferred to the intensive care unit the following day.
Biden first learned the secretary was incapacitated on Jan. 4 and Congress and the Pentagon press corps first learned about it the following day. His doctors have called his prognosis “excellent.”
While Austin said that there were “no gaps” in command authorities as he had handed over responsibility to his deputy, Republican senators have described the situation as a “chain of command crisis” that left Biden unaware of the health or location of the second-in-command of the world’s largest military.
Austin stated that he would continue to answer questions from Congress and added that new procedures were being implemented to ensure that the deputy secretary of defense and the White House would be informed immediately if the secretary needed to hand over his command in the future.
‘These kinds of things don’t happen’
Austin addressed Israel’s war against the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip, as well as the efforts of the United States and Israel to prevent a wider regional war as Iranian proxy forces continue to strike U.S. forces and international shipping in the Red Sea.
“We don’t see an all-out conflict between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah. I think managing that has been artfully done,” Austin said. “We remain in contact with our Israeli counterparts to make sure that that doesn’t blossom into a war on another front.”
“We don’t see Israel engaged in a conflict with other countries in the region,” he added.
Austin said the United States is “not at war with Iran,” but that Iranian proxies continue to carry out strikes like the attack on a U.S. outpost in Jordan that killed three American soldiers on Sunday. He attributed the latter to the Iran-led “axis of resistance” forces.
“How much Iran knew or didn’t know, we don’t know. But it really doesn’t matter because Iran sponsors these groups, it funds these groups, and in some cases, it trains these groups on advanced conventional weapons,” he said. “Without that facilitation, these kinds of things don’t happen.”
Asked about mounting Palestinian civilian casualties, Austin said that Israel needs to carry out a more “focused” phase of military operations in Gaza.
“We are starting to see the Israelis shift their stance and change their approach to a more focused and controlled—controlled is probably not the right word—but a more focused effort, focused on a discrete set of objectives,” said the defense secretary.