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First Press Conference Since Hospitalization Held by Defense Secretary; Defense Secretary Extends Sympathy to the Families of Fallen Servicemen in Jordan; Amid Escalating Tensions in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Answers Queries; Defense Secretary Responds as Militia Violence in the Middle East Intensify; Austin Urges Iran to Cease Arming the Houthis. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired February 01, 2024 - 10:30   ET




LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Sergeant Kennedy L. Sanders, age 24, and Sergeant Breonna A. Moffett, age 23. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and their loved ones, and we know that this grief will never leave them. And we hope that they know that the Department's love and support will never leave them either.

We're also praying for the other American troops who were wounded. Now, our teammates were killed when a one-way attack drone struck their living quarters. And we continue to gather the facts about this deadly attack. Our fallen soldiers had a vital mission to support Operation Inherent Resolve and to work with our partners to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS. They risked their lives and lost their lives to keep their fellow Americans safe from global terrorism.

The President will not tolerate attacks on American troops, and neither will I. Our teammates were killed by radical militias backed by Iran and operating inside Syria and Iraq. In the aftermath of the vile Hamas terrorist assault on Israel on October 7th, terrorist groups backed by Iran and funded by Iran have tried to create even more turmoil, including the Houthis attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

So, this is a dangerous moment in the Middle East. We will continue to work to avoid a wider conflict in a region, but we will take all necessary actions to defend the United States, our interest and our people. And we will respond when we choose, where we choose, and how we choose.

Now, that's what everyone here is focused on. But in my first week back in the Pentagon, I did want to address my recent hospital stay and some of the issues around it.


I'm recovering well, but as you can see, I'm still recovering. I'm still having some leg pain and doing physical therapy to get past it. I'm deeply grateful to my doctors and the nursing staff at Walter Reed, and I very much appreciate all the good wishes.

But I want to be crystal clear, we did not handle this right, and 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. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.

Now, I want to make it very clear that there were no gaps in authorities and no risk to the Department's command and control. At every moment, either I or the deputy secretary was in full charge and we've already put in place some new procedures to make sure that any lapses in notification don't happen.

In the future, if the deputy secretary needs to temporarily assume the off -- the duties of my office, she and several White House offices will be immediately notified, including the White House situation room and so will key officials across the department. And the reason for that assumption of duties will be included in writing.

Now, I want you all to know that -- to know why this happened. I was being treated for prostate cancer. The news shook me, and I know that it shakes so many others, especially in the black community. It was a gut punch. And frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private. I don't think it's news that I'm a pretty private guy. I never liked burdening others with my problems. It's just not my way.

But I've learned from this experience. Taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect. The American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties, even temporarily. So, a wider circle should have been notified, especially the president. I'll take your questions today, but as you know, we've got an ongoing internal review, as well as a DOD inspector general review that we fully support. So, I may have to discuss some aspects later.

Now, let me back up a bit, as you know, on 22nd, December, I had a minimally invasive procedure to cure me of my recently diagnosed prostate cancer. And then I hit some bad luck during what is usually a pretty easy recovery. On January 1st, I felt severe leg pain and pain in the abdomen and hip. That evening, an ambulance took me to Walter Reed. The doctors found that I had several issues that needed treatment, including a bladder infection and abdominal problems.

On January 2nd, I was also experiencing fever and chills and shallow breathing. The medical staff decided to transfer me to the critical care unit for several days for closer monitoring and better team care by my doctors. And the deputy secretary assumed the functions and duties of my office, which happens when necessary. Her senior staff, my senior staff, and the joint staff are notified of this through our regular e-mail notification procedures. And I never directed anyone to keep my January hospitalization from the White House.

On January 5th, I resumed my functions and duties as secretary from the hospital. I was functioning well mentally, but not so well physically, and so I stayed at Walter Reed for additional time -- for additional treatment, including physical therapy for some lingering issues with my leg.

Now, I'm offering all of this as an explanation and not an excuse. I am very proud of what we've achieved at the department over the past three years. But we fell short on this one. As a rule, I don't talk about conversations with my boss, but I can tell you I've apologized directly to President Biden. And I told him that I'm deeply sorry for not letting him know immediately that I received a heavy diagnosis and was getting treatment. And he has responded with a grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect. And I'm grateful for his full confidence in me.


And finally, I also missed an opportunity to send a message on an important public health issue. And I'd like to fix that right now. I was diagnosed with a highly treatable form of cancer, a pretty common one. One in eight American men will get prostate cancer. One in six black men will get it. And so, I'm here with a clear message to other men, especially older men, get screened. Get your regular checkups. Prostate cancer has a glass jaw. If your doctor can spot it, they can treat it and beat it. And the side effects that I experienced are highly, highly unusual. So, you can count on me to set a better example on this issue today and for the rest of my life. And again, I want to thank everyone for their well wishes and their great support.

And with that, I'll take your questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. First question will go to Associated Press, Lita (ph).

LITA (PH): Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You said that you never directed anyone to keep this from the White House. Did you direct your staff or others to keep it from the public and from other senior staff members? And if you did not, has anyone been disciplined for doing something that you did not tell them to do? And then just quickly on Iraq and Syria, what is your response to the KH statement today that they are postponing or not doing any more attacks? Thank you.

AUSTIN: Good morning, Lita.

LITA (PH): Good morning.

AUSTIN: To answer your question on whether or not I directed my staff to conceal my hospitalization from anyone else, the answer is no.

In terms of, my response to KH's statement, we always listen to what people are saying, but we watch what they do. And again, actions are everything. So, we'll see what happens in the future.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Next question. We'll go to "Fox". Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Sir, during that time that you were in the intensive care unit, there was a -- airstrike carried out, a drone strike against a -- an Iraqi leader of a militia. How is it that -- do you regret that the authorities were not clear at that point and what can you explain about what was going through your mind at that time?

And then separately, there's been a lot of telegraphing about targeting and responding to the drone strike, so much so that the Iranian proxy leaders have left the country. Some are back in Tehran. Has there been too much telegraphing or is the point not to kill any Iranian commanders?

AUSTIN: Regarding the strike on the 8th, Jen, that strike was planned, and I had made recommendations to the president on actions that we should carry out, and the president made a decision. And based upon that decision, authorities were pushed down to the central command commander. And as you know, a strike like that you can't pick the precise time when that strike is going to take place. You want to minimize collateral damage. You want to make sure that you have everything right.

And so, the subordinate commander had the controls on that particular strike. So that, I was very much involved in the -- in planning and the recommendations for that. And we knew that that would take place within a matter of days.

In terms of, telegraphing about strikes and whether or not people leave or would have left, you know, I won't speculate on any of that. I would just tell you that, you know, we will have a multi-tiered response. And again, we have the ability to respond a number -- in a -- a number of times depending on what the situation is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Let's go to "Reuters". Phil.

PHIL: what did your deputy know about your condition and when did she know it?

AUSTIN: Yes, Phil, I think, in terms of what she knew and didn't know, I think we should probably let the -- that come out of the review. I think -- I won't speculate on what she knew and did not know based upon what information was passed to her. Again, I think the details of that will come out of -- one or both of those reviews.



GORDON: Mr. Secretary, you said you didn't direct your staff to hide this truth or lie, but did you create a culture of secrecy that then the staff, kind of, interpreted your desires or your intentions when it came to you getting sick?

AUSTIN: Yes, I -- you know, I don't think I've created a culture of secrecy. I think, there will be security officers, there will be other staff members who may perceive that they're doing things in my best interest. And, you know, I can't predict or determine or ascertain what those things may be. I just know what I said and did not say. And of course, you know, I have a great staff. And they always want to intend to do the right things, but in terms of what one may or may not have perceived at any one point in time, I won't speculate on that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, sir. Thank you for doing this. And I think on behalf of all of us here, we wish you a speedy recovery.

I'd like to ask you about the current situation in the Middle East. The message has been deterrence. Deterring the attacks by the Houthis, deterring the attacks by the militias. Has deterrence failed? And if you are going to retaliate at the time and place that you're choosing, is that not an escalation, particularly given all the rhetoric with Iran?

And a question on your recovery, sir. At any point, did you feel that you -- your situation had caused you to consider possibly resigning, given all of the political attention that had developed as a result of it?

AUSTIN: In terms of resignation, the answer is no. In terms of, escalation in the Middle East, you know, our goal was to make sure that we contain this crisis in Gaza and that we prevented things from spreading to a wider, wider conflict.

Now, there's a lot of activity in the region, but there's always been a lot of activity in the region. And you know well that Iranian proxy groups have been attacking our troops even well before October 7th. And you can go -- we can go back and count the numbers of attacks before October 7th and they're not insignificant.

There are things that are ongoing now -- well, things are not ongoing. You know, we don't see a conflict, an all-out conflict between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah. And so, I think managing that I think is -- has been artfully done. And so, you know, we remain in contact with our Israeli counterparts and make sure that that doesn't blossom into a war on the other front.

We don't see Israel engaged in a conflict with other countries in the region. We're not at war with Iran. And yes, the Houthis, continue to do some things that are very irresponsible and illegal. And so, our goal is to make sure that we take away -- we continue to take away capability from the Houthis to do what they have been doing.

And this is not a U.S. issue. This is an international issue. You know, we're going to either be serious about the freedom of navigation and -- or we're not. And so, as we look at partners like the U.K. and so many others that have joined us in this effort, this is about freedom of navigation. There are others in the world that are watching this to see how serious we are about this, and we are serious. And again, our partners and allies are serious about it as well.

This is costing countries and companies significant amounts of money as they have had to redirect commercial traffic around. But the Houthis -- I mean, their activity needs to come to a halt and we will call upon Iran to quit or to cease supplying the Houthis with these advanced conventional weapons that they have used to attack ships in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Let's go to Lyn (ph). LYN (PH): Sir, commiserations on your illnesses, and it's good to see you back on your feet.

AUSTIN: At least on one foot.

LYN (PH): On one foot. You said, that you never directed your staff to keep the news of your hospitalization, from the -- from anyone. Did any senior members of your family or your wife direct people to keep this a secret?

AUSTIN: To my knowledge, no members -- well, I don't know. I don't know what anyone on my on my staff may have said, but I think these things will come out in the review.


And so, rather than speculate, I think we should let that -- the facts come out as a review is done, so.

LYN PH: Can I ask you one more question --

AUSTIN: Sure, sure.

LYN PH: about you? You mentioned during your opening statement that this was an opportunity to talk about prostate cancer, especially in the black community. I wonder, though, do you have any regret that your silence on this reinforced this culture of secrecy among black men about prostate cancer?

AUSTIN: Yes, and you mentioned that -- and it's probably not a -- an issue of secrecy as much as it's an issue of privacy. And, this is a very -- cancer period is very private. And there may be cancer survivors amongst us in this room right here, and I know there is at least a couple -- there are at least a couple. But you know how private that is and you know what the initial diagnosis feels like. And so, among the black community though, it's even more a thing that people want to keep private.

And again, it's more about privacy than secrecy. In my case, I should have informed my boss. I did not. That was a mistake. And again, I apologize to him for not doing so.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Secretary, you went to the hospital on December 22nd. Was your staff aware that you'd gone to the hospital? And if so, why didn't they tell the White House? You went back to the hospital on January 1st, and an aide told the dispatcher when the ambulance arrives, no lights, no sirens. Did you direct the aide to say that?

AUSTIN: I asked, my assistant to call the ambulance. I did not direct him to do anything further than just call the ambulance. And so, what he said and why he said it, I think that should come out in the review as well. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about December 22nd when you went to the hospital the first time? Was the staff aware? And if so, why didn't they tell the White House?

AUSTIN: When I went to the hospital on December 22nd, it was -- I went in for that procedure. My duties were transferred to the deputy, that was planned, and I decided to stay in the hospital overnight. I didn't have to. Decided to stay there overnight because of the anesthesia that was involved. And then the next day, later in the afternoon, early evening, we transferred the authorities back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're talking about your staff. Were your staff aware and why didn't they tell the White House?


PETER: Mr. Secretary, first of all, we wish you good health and thank you for taking our questions and we hope you have a quick recovery. I have two questions. I'll start with the first one on your hospitalization. You were hospitalized for days before you informed the White House or the commander in chief of your condition and your absence. Anyone else within the military chain of command would have faced reprimand or even dismissal. Why shouldn't that same standard apply to you, sir?

AUSTIN: Well, let me just say that -- thanks for the question, that we didn't get this right. And as I said, I take full responsibility for the department's actions. In terms of why, on the second notification was not made to the White House, that information was available. I'm not sure, at this point, what exactly happened, but I think the details will play out as a review is conducted.


PETER: If I can follow up about the situation overseas right now in the deliberation in regards to strikes. There have been more than 160 strikes on American targets across the region. as you noted since October. Why has the U.S. waited until American service members were killed to escalate its response?

AUSTIN: Well, as you know, we've responded a number of times and taken out -- first of all, their attacks, many of them, most of them are going to be ineffective. Many of -- and most of them we're going to defend ourselves against. And whenever we conduct a strike, we're going to hit at what we're aiming at. We're going to take away capability. We're going to do what we're desiring to do. And so, this particular attack was egregious and that, you know, the attack was on the sleeping area of one of our base.

And again, we have -- we've -- Kata'ib Hezbollah and other elements continue to, you know, attack our troops.


And again, I think at this point, we should -- it's time to take away even more capability than we've taken in the past. And in terms of -- you used the term escalation. We've not described what our response is going to be. But we look to hold the people that are responsible for this accountable. And we also look to make sure that we continue to take away capability from them as we go forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Let's go to the next question. "Washington Post". Missy.

MISSY: Welcome back, Mr. Secretary. What -- first of all, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, one of the main oversight committees for this building has asked if you will come testify on a specific date. Will you do that?

And secondly, on the Middle East, what's your response to the criticism that the United States is, sort of, playing into the hands of the Houthis because the U.S. response is elevating their status. They have demonstrated an ability to withstand years of bombing in the past. And more broadly. playing into the hands of the Iranians that support the Houthis and the other groups when the goal of President Biden in the United States has been to prevent increased violence in the Middle East, and now the United States is taking part in actually increasing it? Thanks.

AUSTIN: Missy, what was your first part of your question?

MISSY: Will you testify as Chairman Rogers have asked?

AUSTIN: Yes, so, Congress had some very relevant questions that they've asked us, and we will continue to answer those questions. we'll continue to work with Chairman Rogers' office to address any additional questions or issues that he might have. And again, we'll stay in touch with Chairman Rogers' office as -- in -- you know, as things play out, so.

MISSY: I'm sorry. On the Middle East?


MISSY: Are you playing into the hands of the Houthis and Iran, more generally?

AUSTIN: Well, Missy, you know, if you take a look at what the Houthis are doing. I mean, they're attacking, commercial shipping. You know, initially they said that they're attacking commercial shipping because these ships were supporting Israel. They have attacked the ships that are -- that have the interest of some 50 countries that are not supporting Israel. And so, this is an international crime, and this is something that we have to do about it.

And I -- in terms of elevating the status of the Houthis, I think we have to do something about that. This is not elevating their status. This is about preventing them from having the ability to do what they've done in terms of attacking ships and trying to sink ships that have nothing to do with the Israeli conflict.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go to "CBS". David. DAVID: Mr. Secretary, we all saw a golf cart out in the hallway. Is that how you're getting around now? And how confident are you that your recovery is going to be complete enough to allow you to continue and what everybody recognizes is a very demanding job?

AUSTIN: You know, well, nobody recognizes that more than me. But that's the first time I've used that golf cart, by the way. And -- but I think it's pretty neat. My leg will continue to prove -- improve, the doctors are confident that it will. The -- my P.T. specialist who, I think, is a sadist, is -- you know, he continues to work me hard and he has confidence as well. It will just take time because of the nature of the injury.

DAVID: He told you how much time?

AUSTIN: No, they can't put a number on an -- in terms of days or weeks, but it will be incremental improvement. I won't be ready for the Olympics, but I'll improve.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Does the U.S. need to escalate its military actions or do something new or unprecedented in order to deter Iranian X proxies? And if so, how can that be done without sparking a broader conflict?

AUSTIN: I think everyone recognizes the challenge associated with making sure that we hold the right people accountable, that we do everything necessary to protect our troops. And that we manage things so that they don't escalate. I don't think there's any set formula for doing this. I do think, though, that in everything that we do, as we work our way through our decision-making process with the National Security Council, we're managing all of that, looking at all of that. And we're using every instrument of national power to address various issues.

So, I think -- I mean, there are ways to manage this so it doesn't spiral out of control. And that's been our focus, throughout.