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E.U. Leaders Agree on Ukraine Funding; Iran Seems Concerned about Proxies' Aggression; U.S. Officials Warn of U.S.' Vulnerability to Beijing; U.S. DOD Secretary Lloyd Austin Holds First Presser since Hospitalization. Aired 10-11a ET
Aired February 01, 2024 - 10:00:00 ET
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Live from CNN Abu Dhabi, this is CONNECT THE WORLD with Becky Anderson.
BECKY ANDERSON, CNN HOST (voice-over): Well, our top story tonight, a European Union breakthrough approving billions to support Ukraine.
Europe's farmers are showing discontent demanding their leaders appear focused on Ukraine.
A Houthi cruise missile came dangerously close to hitting a U.S. warship in the Red Sea, just before the U.s. launched, a new round of strikes in
And U.K. media reports are linking seven-time Formula 1 champ Lewis Hamilton to a shock switch from Mercedes to Ferrari.
ANDERSON: Welcome to what is our second hour of CONNECT THE WORLD. I'm Becky Anderson.
The European Union has just agreed to extend $50 billion of new money to Ukraine. This is a deal that the European Council president says provides
steadfast funding for Ukraine's war with Russia.
The E.U. had been wrangling over this deal since December when Hungary vetoed it and there were fears that the same thing would happen. Again
today, even as leaders achieved a show of unity inside European Parliament.
Outside the building, evidence of the atmosphere of discontent in Europe. This time, farmers across the continent expressing their anger at, among
other things, cheap imports that make it harder for them to make a living.
Well, some of those imports, let's be clear, are coming from Ukraine. So tonight we ask, if despite their internal struggles, how did 27 European
countries eventually reach a consensus on this big package for Ukraine?
And what happens next with those farmers?
Let's bring in CNN's Fred Pleitgen in Kyiv. Melissa Bell is in Paris.
And Melissa, lets start with you. This has been tough and it's been ugly. Hungary, holding out; Viktor Orban, holding out, using the power of the
veto. And threatening to block this aid package, which is so needed it by the Ukrainians. What happened?
MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: All the more so, Becky, that it came at a time, this blockage as a result of Viktor Orban's veto in
December, when precisely we were seeing the same difficulty coming from Washington in terms of the United States being able to unblock its further
tranches of aid.
So lots of fears here in Kyiv about what that would mean.
This was a summit that was designed to get everyone back around the table and fix that blockage. Victor Orban had held out until now, at the end
extracting some concessions insofar as there will be, as part of the deal, an annual discussion about it and a review every two years of the amount
within the context of the wider European budget.
That goes a few steps in the direction of Viktor Orban. He'd complained really, Becky, that the amount was too great. That it needed more oversight
than it was getting. The suspicion of people watching what had been happening since December, was that he was also using this as leverage with
regard to his fight with Brussels to try and unblock some money that was due for (INAUDIBLE) that was held back by the European Union.
Still, now despite that disunity being shown, being exposed over the course over the last few months, a huge sigh of relief in Brussels that they've
managed to find a deal that well get that money to where it needs to go, Becky.
ANDERSON: So Fred, lets bring you in just how critical is this to the front lines right now?
And when can Ukraine expect that money?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Becky, first of all, I think that Melissa was just saying that there was a huge
sigh of relief in Brussels. I think the sigh of relief was a lot greater here in Kyiv, even than it was in Brussels.
Certainly you saw that from the some of the statements that we saw from the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, praising the European Union, as he
put it, for coming through for Ukraine.
And also the foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba as well, who said that Ukraine fatigue is a myth, as he put it. A lot of that aid is something that I
think will reach here very quickly and I think that there are several stages to all this on why this is so critical for the Ukrainians.
In the short run, they need a lot of ammunition on the front lines. They need a lot of additional weapons on the front lines as well.
It's something that we've seen as we've been traveling to those areas where, in some places the Ukrainians are saying right now, because of the
ammo shortages they've been suffering, the Russians are able to fire 10 rounds for every round that the Ukrainians are able to fire.
And, you know, we've seen the E.U. say that they're going to ramp up, especially the ammunition deliveries to Ukraine. So far that's been a bit
sluggish. And certainly the Ukrainians hope that that's something that will pick up pace very quickly now.
But then, of course, you have a longer-term effect. And we were saying that this is aid that will go through 2027. So the Ukrainians definitely now
have a bit more security as to knowing that there is going to be continued aid through that period of time.
That's something that is certainly very important to them, that they don't have to go from one summit to the next, from one country to the next, to
try and get additional aid that they need to survive on the battlefield.
Then, of course, finally, you do have the political statement that all this makes, that we heard from the Ukrainian president. We heard from the
foreign minister as well, as they are saying it's such an important signal for them in light of what's going on in the United States, that the E.U. as
a bloc stands behind them. Becky.
ANDERSON: I spoke to the foreign minister Kuleba recently and he at the time, a couple of weeks ago in Davos. And he voiced real frustration with
this narrative of Ukraine fatigue. He says it plays very keenly into the Russian narrative and it doesn't help in any way, shape or form.
I heard one official describing what's been going on as less Ukraine fatigue in Europe and more Orban fatigue at this point.
Melissa, while this high level meeting was happening, as I suggested earlier, farmers in Europe making their voices heard quite literally. Just
explain what is going on with this internal unrest that we are seeing across Europe this time, voiced by the continent's farmers.
BELL: And voiced all the way to Brussels. Now this wasn't meant to figure at all on the agenda. European leaders meeting in Brussels to discuss
Ukraine and yet forced its way on as a result of that anger.
And there is a link to Ukraine. Part of the farmers' beef across the European Union, Becky, is that -- and specifically in eastern parts of the
European Union -- is that there's been unfair competition from things like Ukrainian grain that have been brought in without any levies or quotas or
taxes ever since the war began.
Also that there is unfair competition coming from Latin America, for instance, in the shape of beef imports. It's what they say is that these
are, whether the grains or beef from elsewhere, that are not subject the kind of regulations that European farmers face.
So what they're saying is that the red tape that Brussels imposes on them, things like the 4 percent of their land that has to remain fallow for
environmental reasons, the additional red tape and environmental measures taken as part of the European Green Deal.
All of these have made their economic activity unsustainable, even as they're having to fight against products that come from other parts of the
world, where the farmers are simply not subject to the same kinds of constraints. It is the injustice at the heart of that that's really forced
them to the streets.
Now we have been seeing some concessions here in France. The newly minted French prime minister has announced 150 million euros' worth of immediate
aid tax relief to the farmers.
That seems to have gone some way to assuaging part of their fears, for instance, the two main farmers' unions have just called here for the
farmers to leave their road blocks, urged them to continue the movement in terms of keeping pressure up on the government.
A change of tactics, perhaps, but certainly concessions appear now to be being made. Becky.
ANDERSON: Melissa, thank you.
Let me get back to you in Kyiv, Fred, because I know that we are -- and I'm just looking here at reports we're getting into CNN about Ukraine, saying
that it has sunk a warship.
What details do we have at this point?
PLEITGEN: Yes, they said that they've sunk a warship -- a Corvette to be exact. They said they did this in the Crimean Peninsula and actually not
even in the Black Sea but in a river delta.
They apparently managed to get to the ship, as the Ukrainians put it; there's some spectacular overnight video that the Ukrainians have
published, where they say that they used unmanned seaborne drones. So not airborne but seaborne drones to attack this ship.
And the video, which is impossible to independently verify coming from Ukraine's military intelligence. And they are saying that they essentially
rammed the ship. And essentially managed to damage it very badly, that it was not operational anymore. And then in the end that the ship sank.
We've not heard from the Russians yet to whether or not they would confirm this. But so far the Ukrainians are saying that they mentioned do this in
an operation overnight. And certainly looking at some of that video, it appears to show the sea drones racing toward that ship.
It also appears to show the Russians' warship firing machine guns or something else at those seaborne drones, obviously trying to stop them. And
it also appears to show big damage to the rear of that ship and also to the side hull of that ship as well.
Again, right now independent -- impossible to independently verify that video, independently verify where the location of that possibly is.
But the Ukrainians are saying this was a big feat by their military intelligence and certainly something where they say that they managed to
attack a key warship of the Black Sea fleet of the Russian Federation, not in the open sea but actually in a river delta, which obviously would have
made an operation like this all the more difficult.
And it's really something that the Ukrainians have said the Russians are going to see a lot more of in the future, is these attacks behind the
lines. They've been attacking a lot of infrastructure of the Russians on Russian territory using airborne drones but also on occupied territory as
And this could be another example of that, where the Ukrainians are trying to attack the Russians in places like Crimea, in other occupied areas, but
then also of course, infrastructure, facilities, things like fuel depots in -- on Russian territory itself.
Of course, some of the attacks that we've seen that the Ukrainians have claimed have gone all the way to St. Petersburg, which is, of course,
hundreds of miles from any sort of Ukrainian controlled territory. Becky.
ANDERSON: Good to have you, sir. Thank you.
Well, this hour, the U.S. Defense Secretary is going to hold his first news conference since being hospitalized for complications from prostate cancer
Lloyd Austin will certainly address the three American service members who were killed, of course, in a drone attack in Jordan earlier this week and
U.S. strikes on Houthi targets.
U.S. airstrikes hit 10 Houthi drones and a ground control station in Yemen early today. That after U.S. officials say a cruise missile launched by the
Houthis came within about 1.5 kilometers of the U.S.S. Gravely before it was shot down.
Meantime, U.S. intelligence contacts tell CNN Iranian leaders are concerned about these continuing Houthi attacks and attacks by other Iranian proxies
in the region and are seeking to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States. Katie Bo Lillis is with us this hour from Washington.
And as we continue to hear those hawks in Washington say that it is Tehran, it is Iran itself that needs to be targeted, we do know that President
Biden says at least that he has a plan. We do not have the details of that plan.
What of this new reporting?
KATIE BO LILLIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So Becky, U.S. officials telling my colleague, Natasha Bertrand and I (sic) that the intelligence community has
some indicators that Iran has grown concerned about some of the actions of its proxies; in particular, this attack in Jordan that killed three
American service members earlier in the week.
Came as a surprise to Iranian leadership and was met with some dismay as it's the first time in more than 160 attacks now that these Iraq- and
Syria-based militia groups have successfully been able to actually kill American service members.
There's also the matter of these Houthi strikes on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. There's some concern, according to our sources amongst Iranian
leadership, that the damage to both commercial Chinese and Indian shipping interests, two sort of key allies for Iran, may blow back on Tehran in ways
that they didn't intend.
Now look, very important to understand here, Becky, that our sources tell us that there's no sense that this sort of sense of nervousness inside
Tehran is likely to end up with a response of Tehran saying, you know what, we're going to -- we're going to put the kibosh on all on all proxy
We're going to close up shop. But there may be a possibility that Iran may seek to sort of temper some of the direction and support that it's giving
its various proxy groups around the margin.
Right U.S. officials are really seeing this kind of in the broader context of Iran's attempt to kind of calibrate its response to the Israeli conflict
in Gaza, to sort of exact costs on U.S. and Western interests in the region without actually crossing over the line into all-out war.
Now what might complicate this reaction for Iran, of course, is that they do not have perfect command and control over all of their different proxy
groups, Becky. So this is a complicated situation that U.S. officials will be watching closely.
ANDERSON: Yes, and important to point that I out. I mean, the idea that Tehran is just going to withdraw support and go quiet on this region is,
frankly, wishful thinking.
But important reporting, nonetheless. Thank you very much indeed.
And if you'd like to know more about exactly who the Houthis are, for example, how powerful they are, what they want out of this conflict, head
online. We've got to write up their focus on the situation on the ground in Yemen and what led to this point.
Still to come tonight, the head of the FBI warns that Chinese hackers are preparing an attack on U.S. critical infrastructure, including water and
electricity systems, more on that after this.
ANDERSON: The U.S. Capitol hosted two important hearings this week that have implications around the world.
FBI chief Christopher Wray was the star witness of one. Meta's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was grilled by lawmakers in the other. Both pertain to safety
and security in a high-tech, interconnected world and both revealed intel that will be of interest to you.
Let's begin with the FBI's stark wanting to lawmakers over China. CNN's Brian Todd reports.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The FBI director was blunt and dire with his warnings. Americans have paid far too little attention.
Christopher Wray says to what he calls a multi-pronged assault on U.S. national and economic security by Chinese hackers?
CHRIS WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: China's hackers are positioning on American infrastructure in preparation to wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to
American citizens and communities, if and when China decides the time has come to strike.
TODD: What could Chinese hackers target that would cause harm inside the U.S.?
WRAY: Our critical infrastructure our water treatment plants, our electrical grid, our oil and natural gas pipelines, our transportation
TODD: Wray didn't say that Chinese hackers are actively targeting those systems now but that they are lurking inside critical infrastructure, so
they can use that access and be ready to strike at a later date.
JAMES LEWIS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: You do reconnaissance. You identify targets, you identify the way in. That's what
the Chinese are doing.
TODD: U.S. officials have been on to the Chinese hackers and have been trying to head them off.
CNN reporting that the FBI and the Justice Department using a court order have taken steps to protect hundreds of devices in the U.S., devices
connected to infrastructure that are being targeted by Beijing's hackers, steps including removing malicious code from those devices.
But the Chinese hackers are still believed to be deeply entrenched in U.S. infrastructure and security officials say that's partly America's fault.
JEN EASTERLY, DIRECTOR, U.S. CYBERSECURITY AND INFRASTRUCTURE SECURITY AGENCY: The truth is, the Chinese cyber actors have taken advantage of
very basic flaws in our technology. We've made it easy on them.
TODD: How have Chinese hackers been let in the door to America's plants, pipelines and servers?
LEWIS: The first thing is the Chinese have figured out that, if you go after small offices and home offices, people aren't going to be as
protected as they are at work and you get into somebody's home office and then you can get to their work network.
The second is -- and this is a big theme of the administration -- is we write software without thinking about security.
TODD: What U.S. officials now fear, that if China invades Taiwan and the U.S. tries to respond militarily, the Chinese hacking efforts could hinder
LEWIS: They can cripple the logistics that support our forces in East Asia -- rails, pipelines, airplanes, airports. They could make it very hard to
support troops that are deployed overseas.
TODD: Chinese authorities have consistently denied engaging in any state sponsored hacking, often saying that China itself is a frequent target of
Recently, CNN reported that Chinese leader Xi Jinping told President Biden in November that China would not try to disrupt the U.S. presidential
election. To that, FBI Director Wray just said he doesn't trust those assurances, saying he'll believe it when he sees it -- Brian Todd, CNN,
ANDERSON: China has responded angrily to those accusations by the FBI director. Its foreign ministry says that, and I quote, "China firmly
opposes and cracks down on all forms of cyber attacks in accordance with the law.
"Without the valid evidence, the U.S. jumped to unwarranted conclusions and made groundless accusations against China."
This is, they say, "extremely irresponsible and a complete distortion of facts."
CNN's Stephen Collinson has written an analysis piece for our digital platform on this and he joins us now from our bureau in Beijing.
And you write, Stephen, quote, "The challenge from an increasingly mighty China, which is reshaping global geopolitics, is one of the few policy
areas on Capitol Hill, where both parties share a common vision of a threat or problem and a desire for action."
Just explain for our international viewers how worried lawmakers are and how worried you think perhaps they should be and whether those two are
similar sort of emotions.
STEPHEN COLLINSON, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is, as I wrote there, there is a bipartisan concern about the broader implications
of China's rise to superpower status and the threat to which it poses to the U.S.
The White House and its national security statements that set the tone for policy says that China is the only actor in the world that has the capacity
and the will to overturn U.S. dominance.
So that is the context we're coming at this from. The fact that the FBI director chose to do this in a hearing, that he knew would cause a huge
splash, I think, is very instructive. I think it shows some divisions inside the U.S. government about the gravity and the urgency of the threat.
But he also knows he was talking to a responsive audience that wants to act. He's trying to get more money out of Congress, more sort of motivation
from the private sector, which runs a lot of these infrastructure facilities, to act here and quickly.
I think the way to look at this, as well as the Homeland Security dimension, it's the fact that, if there was a conflict with China, perhaps
over Taiwan or the South China Sea, the costs to the United States for intervening would not just be borne by American forces in the Pacific.
China would have the leverage to create a great deal of disruption and hardship for Americans back home. And that, of course, has its own
ANDERSON: Yes, and let me be quite clear. Coming at this through the lens of where I am, the Gulf, I mean, this is -- this U.S.-China relationship is
one that really troubles so many other parts of the world, who feel, at times, that they're being asked to sort of back a side.
And certainly in this part of the world, where China is a huge consumer of, for example, its oil -- and also enormous sort of bilateral trade
agreements with China, it's a really, really difficult relationship to sort of work through for many countries around the world.
As you rightly point out, look, much of this circles back to Taiwan -- and Christopher Wray brought that up just yesterday. We saw joint U.S.-Japan
military exercises in that region
I just wonder how you assess the fragility of this relationship between the U.S. and Beijing at the moment, because, as much as anything else, we've
seen the vulnerabilities of the U.S. as far as chips and it -- and its manufacturing sector.
And we've seen how the U.S. is -- has sought to get one up on the competition when it comes to China.
How would you assess this relationship?
COLLINSON: Well, the presence of both countries had a summit in California back in November. And at that point, relations were exceedingly troubled.
They weren't helped at all by the passage of that Chinese spy balloon across the United States last year, which did a great deal to create more
anti-China feeling in Congress.
And it put the -- President Biden in a very difficult position. That summit seemed to be able to put a trapdoor under the relationship. Both sides know
that the strains are coming; a U.S. presidential election this year, in which China is a big issue, again, a tear that sort of attempt to arrest
the plunge in ties.
So it's going to be interesting to see how this episode, for example, which appears to have really angered the Chinese, strains the perhaps little
entente cordial (ph) that Biden and Xi were able to create in California.
China is going to be a huge issue in this election. The president is under fire from Republicans, who say that he's weak, that he doesn't stand up to
The fact that now a Republican candidate can stand up and say that Biden, perhaps not quite fairly, has allowed China to create this leverage in the
U.S. infrastructure system, makes it a very difficult political moment for the president.
But the relationships are fragile and there's no reason to think that the trajectory of this relationship is going to be anything but troubled, as
China increasingly challenges the U.S., not just in Asia but back home on the U.S. mainland.
ANDERSON: Yes, a lot of concern from both sides about exactly what is going on and it's one of the reasons, of course, as we -- as we've been
watching this sort of pivot of attention by the U.S. to Asia, not least to China.
We've seen the sort of drawback of attention by the U.S. on the Middle East until of course, October the 7th. And that horrendous, tragic assault by
Hamas on Israel and the upshot of that, the -- what we are seeing going on in Gaza at present.
Good to have you, sir. Thank you.
Well, to the other hearings about the risks of social media now. This time yesterday, the tech hearing on Capitol Hill had just started. Here's what
came out as CNN's Tom Foreman shows us.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): But you have blood on your hands.
SEN. JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): Your product is killing people.
Will you set up a victims' compensation fund with your money, the money you made on these families sitting behind you?
Yes or no?
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, whose company owns Instagram, pushed into apologizing to
families, who say they were harmed by online content, some waving pictures of children who died or killed themselves.
It was an astonishing moment. Yet the billionaire head of Meta dug in anyway.
MARK ZUCKERBERG, CEO, META: And this is why we invested so much and we are (INAUDIBLE) industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go
through the types of things your families have had to suffer.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-OH): Your platforms really suck at policing themselves.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Against a torrent of accusations from the Senate committee about enabling sexual exploitation, election meddling, fake news,
drug abuse and child endangerment, the heads of five tech giants tried to push back.
JASON CITRON, CEO, DISCORD: We very much believe that this content is disgusting.
LINDA YACCARINO, X, CEO: X will be active and a part of this solution.
FOREMAN (voice-over): But the fury kept coming in a rare show of unity between Democrats --
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): One-third of fentanyl cases investigated over five months had direct ties to social media.
FOREMAN: -- and Republican.
HAWLEY: -- 37 percent of teenage girls between 13 and 15 were exposed to unwanted nudity in a week on Instagram. You knew about it.
Who did you fire?
ZUCKERBERG: Senator, this is why we're building all these rules.
HAWLEY: Who did you fire?
ZUCKERBERG: I'm not going to answer that.
FOREMAN (voice-over): There was plenty of heat to go around as the tech bosses were scorched with claims their products promote anxiety, depression
and violence, especially among young people.
SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN): Children are not your priority. Children are your product.
FOREMAN (voice-over): But no one was hit harder than Zuckerberg, whose attempts at defense at times were literally laughed at.
ZUCKERBERG: My understanding is that we don't allow sexually explicit content on the service for people of any age.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How is that going?
ZUCKERBERG: You know, our --
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Is there any one of you willing to say now that you support this bill?
FOREMAN: Many of the lawmakers are intent on overturning a longstanding federal law that immunizes those companies from lawsuits over user-
generated content and putting tough regulations in place.
KLOBUCHAR: It's time to actually pass them. And the reason they haven't passed is because of the power of your company. So let's be really, really
clear about that.
FOREMAN (voice-over): And while the tech bosses say they're happy to work on safeguards, skepticism ran rampant.
GRAHAM: Nothing will change until the courtroom door is open to victims of social media.
ANDERSON: Tom Foreman, joining us now from Washington.
We expected it to be fiery and that is exactly what we got. Look, Zuckerberg's apology, all well and good.
But we heard there one of the lawmakers asking these heads, these tech heads, whether they would support this bill, as he said, this new
What is this bill?
And are we any closer to understanding how our kids around the world might be protected from online exploitation?
FOREMAN: There are a variety of bills that have been put forward, Becky, that would aim to put some kind of constraints on what can be out there.
And as Senator Graham motioned at the end there, to at least crack the door a little bit to say if children are being exploited or harmed by online
company that these companies can't just say they're blameless.
One comparison here would be, back when cars were first developed and they only went 15 miles an hour and there were only a few of them, nobody wanted
to put a lot of constraints. Like you need airbags and seat belts and warning signs and all of this stuff because it would have killed the car
That's what happened in the 1990s with the internet. It was new. They didn't want all these restraints. Well, now, these are some of the biggest,
wealthiest, most powerful companies in the world.
And these Congress members from the Left and Right are saying, enough already. You can't be free to say, you will just do what you think is
right, because these problems keep appearing. They keep appearing. And as one senator said, there's simply no basis to trust social media companies
to regulate themselves anymore.
ANDERSON: Tom, it's good to have you, sir. Thank you.
I'm going to go straight to the Pentagon, where Lloyd Austin, the defense minister, is just beginning to speak.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
BRIG. GEN. PATRICK RYDER, PRESS SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: -- those questions and call on journalists, so I'd ask that you raise your hand if
you have a question, wait to be recognized and I'll -- I'll call upon you.
With that, over to you, Mr. Secretary.
GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Thanks, Pat.
And good morning.
It's been a difficult few days for the Department of Defense and the entire department is united in our outrage and sorrow over the death of three U.S.
service members on Sunday in Jordan.
We all mourn the loss of three Army Reserve soldiers serving at Tower 22 -- Sergeant William J. Rivers, age 46; Sergeant Kennedy L. Saunders, 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. 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
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 the region but we will take all necessary
actions to defend the United States, our interests 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.
Still having some leg pain and doing physical therapy and -- to get past it. I'm deeply grateful to my doctors and the nursing staff at Walter Reed
and I very much appreciate all of 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
Now I want to make it very clear that there were no gaps in authorities and no risks 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
In the future, if the Deputy Secretary needs to temporarily assume the office -- 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 like 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 of December I had a minimally-invasive 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 -- and pain in the abdomen and hip and 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 -- 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 were notified of this through our regular email 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 -- 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've 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 the grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect and I'm grateful for his full confidence in
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 and a pretty common one.
One in eight American men will get prostate cancer and 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.
RYDER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. First question will go to Associated Press, Lita.
QUESTION: 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 -- and Syria. What is your response to the KH statement today that they are postponing or not doing any more
AUSTIN: Good morning, Lita. The answer to 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 -- my response to KH's statement, we always listen to what people are saying but we watch what they do. And -- and again, actions are
everything, so we'll see what happens in the future.
RYDER: OK, next question will go to Fox, Jennifer.
QUESTION: Sir, during that time that you were in the Intensive Care Unit, there was a air strike 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 -- 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 -- was planned and I -- I had made recommendations to the president on -- on -- on
actions that we should carry out and -- and president made a decision and based upon that decision, authorities were pushed down to the Central
And as you know, a strike like that, you can't pick the precise time when that strike's 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 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 -- on any of that. I will
just tell you that, you know, we will have a -- a multi-tiered response and -- and again, we have the ability to -- to respond a number -- in a -- a
number of times depending on what the situation is.
RYDER: OK. Let's go to Reuters, Phil.
QUESTION: What did your deputy know about your condition?
And -- and when did she know it?
AUSTIN: You know, Phil, I -- 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 -- I won't speculate on what she knew and did not know based upon what information was passed to -- to her.
Again, I think the details of that will come out of one or both of those reviews.
RYDER: OK. Gordon?
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you said you didn't direct your staff to hide this truth or -- or lie but did you create a culture of secrecy that then -
- the staff kind of interpreted your -- your desires or your intentions when it came to getting sick?
AUSTIN: Yes, I -- you know, I -- I -- 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 -- who may perceive that they're doing things in my best interest and, you know, I can't -- I can't predict or -- or determine or
ascertain what those things may be.
I just know what I said and -- and did not say. And of course, you know, I -- I have a great staff and -- and they always want to and tend to do the
right things. But in terms of what one -- one may or may not have perceived at any one point in time, I won't speculate on that, so.
RYDER: OK. Let's go to ABC.
QUESTION: 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 -- the message has been deterrence, deterring the attacks by -- by the Houthis, deterring the attacks by the militias. Has deterrence failed?
And as you are going to retaliate at a time and place of your choosing, is that not an escalation, particularly given all the rhetoric with Iran?
And a -- a question on your recovery, sir -- at any point, did you feel that you -- you're in a situation and it caused you to consider possibly
resigning, given all of the political attention that -- that had developed as a result of it?
AUSTIN: In terms of resignation, the answer is no.
In terms of -- of escalation in the Middle East, you know, our -- our goal was to make sure that -- that we contain this crisis in -- in -- in Gaza
and -- and that we prevented things from -- 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 -- 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 -- and they're not insignificant.
There -- there are things that are ongoing now -- well, things that are not ongoing. You know, we -- we don't see a -- a conflict -- an all-out
conflict between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah. And so I think managing that I think is a -- a -- has been artfully done.
And -- and so, you know, we remain in contact with our Israeli counterparts and make sure that that doesn't blossom into a -- a -- a war at another
front. We don't see Israel engaged in -- in a conflict with other countries in the region. We're not at war with -- with Iran. And yes, the Houthis
continue to do some things that are very irresponsible and illegal.
And -- 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've been doing. And
this is not a -- 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 -- or we're not. And -- and -- 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 -- 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 -- as they had to redirect commercial traffic around. But the Houthis, I mean,
their activity needs to come to a halt and we would call upon Iran to -- to quit -- or to cease supplying the Houthis with -- with these advanced
conventional weapons that they've used to attack ships in the -- in the Red Sea and the Bab-al-Mandab.
RYDER: OK, let's go to Helene.
QUESTION: Sir, commiserations on your illness and the -- and it's good to see you back on your feet.
AUSTIN: At least on one foot.
QUESTION: 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 at that -- I think these
things will come out in the -- in the review. And so rather than speculate, I -- I think we should -- we should let that -- the facts come out as the
review is done, so.
QUESTION: Can I ask you one more --
AUSTIN: Sure -- sure.
QUESTION: -- question about you -- it -- it -- it -- you mentioned during your opening statement that this was an opportunity to talk about prostate
cancer, especially to the Black community.
I wondered though do you have any regret that your silence on this reinforces a culture of secrecy among back -- Black men about prostate
AUSTIN: Yes -- and you mentioned that -- and it's probably not the -- an issue of secrecy as much as it's a issue of privacy. And this is -- this is
a very -- cancer, period, is -- is very private and there may be cancer survivors amongst -- amongst us in this room right here -- and I know there
is at least a couple -- there are at least a couple.
But -- but you know how -- how private that -- that is and -- and you know what the initial diagnosis feels like.
And -- and so among the Black community though, it's -- it's even more a -- a thing that -- that people want to -- want to keep private. And -- 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 -- and again, I
apologized to him for not doing so.
RYDER: Let's go to NPR.
QUESTION: 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 -- that 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 -- in the review as well, so.
QUESTION: What about December 22nd, when you went to the hospital the first time, was your staff aware?
And if so, why didn't they tell the White House?
AUSTIN: When -- 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 -- and I decided to stay in the hospital overnight -- 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 authorities back.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, first of all, we wish you good health and thank you for taking our questions. 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. In 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 -- that we didn't get this right. And as I said, I take full responsibility
for -- 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 details will -- will play out as a review is conducted.
QUESTION: I'd like some follow-up about the situation overseas right now and 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 -- 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 -- we're going to
do what we're desiring to do.
And so this particular attack was egregious, in that -- you know, the attack was on the sleeping area of one of -- of our base. And again, we
have -- we've -- Kata'ib Hezbollah and other elements continue to attack our troops and -- 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 the -- you use the term "escalation." We've not described what our -- 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.
RYDER: Let's go -- let's go to the next question. "The Washington Post," Missy?
QUESTION: 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've demonstrated their 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 and 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?
AUSTIN: Missy, what was the first part of your question?
QUESTION: Will you testify at Chairman Rogers' --
AUSTIN: Yes, OK.
Yes, so Congress had -- had some very relevant questions that they've asked us and we will continue to -- to answer those questions. We'll continue to
work with Chairman Rogers' office to -- to -- to address add- -- any additional questions or issues that he might have. And again, we'll stay in
touch with Chairman Rogers' office as -- and -- and -- you know, as things play out, so --
QUESTION: And sorry, about the Middle East.
QUESTION: Are you planning to hand over the Houthis and Iran, more generally?
AUSTIN: Well, Missy, you know, if you take a look at what -- what the Houthis are doing, I mean, they're -- they're attacking commercial
shipping. You know, initially, they said that they're attacking commercial shipping because these ships were supporting Israel.
They've attacked the ships that -- that -- that are -- that have the interest of some-50 countries that are not supporting Israel.
And -- and so this is -- this is an international crime and -- and this is something that we have to do about. 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 -- with -- with the Israeli conflict.
RYDER: Let's go to CBS, David.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we all saw a golf cart out in the hallway.
Is -- is -- is that how you're getting around now?
And how confident are you that your recovery is going be complete enough to allow you to continue in what everybody recognizes as a very demanding job?
AUSTIN: Yes, well, nobody recognizes that more than me. But that's the first time I 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 PT specialist, who I think is a sadist, is -- you know, he continues to work me hard and -- and -- and he has confidence, as well.
It'll just take time because of the nature of the -- of the -- of the injury.
QUESTION: Do you know how much time?
AUSTIN: No, they -- they can't put a number on the -- in terms of days or -- or -- or weeks but -- but it'll be incremental improvement. I won't be
ready for the Olympics but -- but I'll -- I'll improve, so --
RYDER: Let's go to AFP.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Does the U.S. need to escalate its military actions or do something new or unprecedented in order to deter Iran and its proxies?
And -- and if so, how can that be done without -- or without sparking a broader conflict?
AUSTIN: I think everyone recognizes the -- the -- the challenge associated with making sure that we hold the right people accountable, that -- that we
do everything necessary to protect our troops and that we manage things so that it -- they -- they don't escalate. I don't think there's any -- any
set formula for doing this.
I do think, though, that -- that in everything that we do as we work our way through our decision-making process with the National Security Council,
we're -- we're -- we're managing all of that, looking at all of that and -- and we're using every instrument of national power to -- to address various
So -- so I think -- I mean, there -- there are ways to -- to -- to manage this so it doesn't spiral out of control and that's been our focus
throughout, so --
RYDER: Let's go to Al Jazeera, Fadi.
QUESTION: Thanks. Speedy recovery, Mr. Secretary.
I'm -- I have two things.