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‘I did not handle this right’, US defence chief Austin admits after returning from absence

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin addressed his absence for treatment of prostate cancer at a news conference on Thursday where he apologised for not being more transparent about his temporary withdrawal from his duties.

Mr Austin gave his most in-depth explanation yet for his actions, which erupted into controversy in January after it was revealed that he had been hospitalised and handed duties over to a deputy without informing the White House. President Joe Biden and his team went days without learning of Mr Austin’s treatment for cancer, which left him recovering at Walter Reed for weeks.

The secretary returned to work remotely during his recovery at Walter Reed Medical Center, but the White House faced uncomfortable questions about why the president had not been alerted to the hospitalisation and apparent illness of a Cabinet official — particularly as the US is engaged in conflicts across the Middle East stemming from Israel’s military assault on the Gaza Strip.

"Let me be crystal clear: we did not handle this right and I did not handle this right," said the Defense secretary at Thursday’s presser. "I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis."

He added: "I apologise to my teammates and to the American people."

Mr Austin went on to say that he had wanted to shield his colleagues and others from the responsibility of responding to his diagnosis and treatment, explaining that his “first instinct was to keep it private.”

He also alluded to a stigma within the Black community, recognised by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a factor contributing to mortality, surrounding screenings for prostate cancer.

"It's more about privacy than secrecy," said Mr Austin. "Among the Black community, it's even more a thing that people want to keep private."

Biden administration officials including White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre have given no indication that there will be any formal or informal consequences for Mr Austin’s admission of a transparency failure. The administration did, however, issue new guidelines last month through White House chief of staff Jeff Zients ordering all Cabinet-level officials to inform the White House when they must step away for medical or other reasons, requiring duties to be passed to a deputy.

The White House, led by Mr Biden, began a “Cancer Moonshot” in 2021 aimed at “end[ing] cancer as we know it”. The program is an umbrella for a number of initiatives across the federal government aimed at both expanding access to cancer screenings and treatment as well as providing resources to researchers working on new cancer detection and treatment innovations.

“We are very happy to hear of his discharge and [are] looking forward to him getting back to the Pentagon,” Ms Jean-Pierre said during a 16 January news briefing.