The Saga of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s Recent ‘Medical Mystery’

Secretary of Defense
Lloyd Austin (Credit: Chad McNeeley, DOD).

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… now that details about Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III’s recent “medical mystery” have finally come to light, our analysis this week will be looking at 1) the events leading up to the Defense Secretary’s hospitalization, 2) how top officials, and even the President, were kept in the dark for days, and 3) what this situation illustrates about current issues with government transparency.

Quote of the Week

“I want to underscore again that Secretary Austin has taken responsibility for the issues with transparency and the department is taking immediate steps to improve our notification procedures.”

– Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder

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With that all behind us, it’s time we look at events of recent days and the odd circumstances that, for a time, kept the President and top U.S. officials in the dark about the condition of the Secretary of Defense.

A Medical Mystery

On December 30, an official Department of Defense (DoD) release was issued with a brief recap of a call between Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Netherlands Minister of Defence Kajsa Ollongren.

“Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with his counterpart, Minister of Defence of the Netherlands Kajsa Ollongren to discuss the ongoing illegal Houthi attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea,” read a portion of the release.

However, few were aware at the time that, despite the innocuous appearance of operations at the Pentagon, a concerning situation had been slowly unfolding behind the scenes.


Several days later, and well into the new year on January 5, the Pentagon released a statement from Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder with an update regarding Defense Secretary Austin.

“On the evening of January 1, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for complications following a recent elective medical procedure,” read Ryder’s statement. Offering no details on the procedure or Austin’s condition other than that he was “recovering well” and would resume duties that day, Ryder affirmed that Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks had been “prepared to act for and exercise the powers of the Secretary, if required.”

Lack of Communication

The following day, on January 6, the DoD released another update, this time directly from Austin.

“I am very glad to be on the mend and look forward to returning to the Pentagon soon,” Austin said, saying he understood “the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.”

“I commit to doing better,” Austin said, though emphasizing that “this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.” However, in the ensuing days, concerns began to mount over the incident as it was revealed that, while temporarily assuming Austin’s duties, the Deputy Secretary of Defense had not been fully informed about Austin’s whereabouts for several days, and that President Joe Biden and other officials had also been kept in the dark about the situation.

Even after the concerning situation began to receive significant media attention, the Pentagon remained vague, at best, about the reasons for Austin’s hospitalization. During an off-camera press briefing, Ryder provided a timeline of events leading up to Austin’s hospitalization, although still provided no specifics on the “elective procedure” that had rendered him temporarily incapable of assuming his duties. 

Austin’s Condition is Finally Revealed

Finally, on January 9, during a Pentagon press briefing, Ryder shared a statement provided by Dr. John Maddox, trauma medical director, and Dr. Gregory Chesnut, Center for Prostate Disease Research of the Murtha Center, director at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which revealed the cause of the hospitalization.

Chinese Military Power Report

“As part of Secretary Austin’s routinely-recommended health screening, he has undergone regular prostate-specific antigen (PSA) surveillance,” the statement read. “Changes in his laboratory evaluation in early December of 2023 identified prostate cancer, which required treatment.” Austin’s prostate cancer was reportedly detected early, “and his prognosis is excellent,” according to his doctors.

However, Austin was readmitted following discomfort following the initial procedure. As of the Pentagon’s most recent update on Wednesday afternoon, the Secretary of Defense “remains hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and is in good condition.”

From his current location at Walter Reed, Austin reportedly remains “in contact with his senior staff and has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor DOD’s day-to-day operations worldwide,” Ryder said yesterday. However, many have understandably expressed concerns over the situation: one where top officials, and even the President, went for three days before finally learning what had been taking place quietly behind the scenes.

Austin’s situation is understandably complicated. A recent USA Today report argued that “men commonly struggle with sharing weaknesses, in part, due to our culture’s view of masculinity, even when it comes to important health matters.” On the one hand, having to share details about a very private health condition could indeed be viewed by some as a display of weakness, although a more likely explanation in Austin’s case is simply that after undergoing the initial procedure, he probably had not expected complications that would lead to a longer hospitalization.

Lloyd Austin
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (Credit: U.S. Secretary of Defense).

Still, once it was evident that he would be temporarily unable to execute his duties, the nature of the situation changed, and no one—including Austin, in light of his commitments to doing better going forward—seems to dispute this.

“Nothing is more important to the secretary of defense and the Department of Defense than the trust and confidence of the American people and the public we serve and we’ll continue to work hard every day to earn and deserve that trust,” Ryder said in a statement issued yesterday.

It is indeed fortunate that Austin’s condition is not more severe, and that he appears to be steadily improving. However, the situation that unfolded over the last week clearly shows another area where the Pentagon obviously has work to do in terms of making sure they “earn and deserve” the trust of the American public.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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