Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has been hospitalized for the past week because of complications after he had prostate cancer surgery, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center said in a statement on Tuesday.
A hospital official said Mr. Austin was admitted on Jan. 1 with severe abdominal, hip and leg pain after he underwent what the hospital characterized as a “minimally invasive surgical procedure” known as a prostatectomy, the week before. The defense secretary, who had developed an infection, was put in intensive care, where excess abdominal fluid was drained.
Since then, “his infection has cleared,” according to the statement, from Dr. John Maddox and Dr. Gregory Chesnut at Walter Reed.
Mr. Austin’s prostate cancer was detected early and his prognosis was “excellent,” they said.
John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, said Tuesday that the White House had only learned that day about the diagnosis of prostate cancer.
The 70-year-old defense secretary is fiercely private and has been guarded about his medical issues, refusing to disclose for more than a week why he was in the hospital. The subject has been a topic of intense interest since Friday, when the Pentagon first publicly disclosed that he had been in the hospital for four days after what a spokesman described as elective surgery.
Mr. Austin’s hospitalization had been kept from the White House and President Biden for three days. Pentagon officials informed the White House on Thursday that the defense secretary was hospitalized.
The secrecy has prompted criticism, especially from lawmakers, who were not told until Friday.
Mr. Biden has said that he retains his faith in Mr. Austin.
But a top White House official ordered cabinet secretaries on Tuesday to keep his office informed when they may not be able to perform their duties. In a memo, Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, directed cabinet officers to evaluate their current policies for delegating authority when a secretary is incapacitated and to forward those procedures to the White House for review. Mr. Zients also made clear that White House officials expected to be kept up to date about developments like major medical issues.
White House officials have expressed consternation that the country’s top defense official, who is part of the nuclear chain of command, was in the intensive care unit for so long without the president or other major national security officials being aware of it. Even Mr. Austin’s deputy secretary, who would be called upon to act in a crisis in his absence, was not told at first.
The Pentagon has said that because Mr. Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly E. Magsamen, was ill last week, she was unable to make notifications until Thursday. At that time, Ms. Magsamen informed Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary, and Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, about Mr. Austin’s hospitalization, according to Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary.
It was unclear why another top Pentagon aide did not make the notifications earlier in the week. Four aides to the secretary were informed Jan. 2 of the hospitalization, according to the Pentagon, but did not promptly pass word to other key officials.
In the statement, the Walter Reed doctors said that Mr. Austin’s health screenings last year had shown changes in the antigens that are used to identify prostate cancer. “Changes in his laboratory evaluation in early December 2023 identified prostate cancer, which required treatment,” the doctors said in the statement.
Mr. Austin was admitted to Walter Reed on Dec. 22, the statement said, where he underwent the prostatectomy “to treat and cure prostate cancer.” A prostatectomy is a surgical procedure to remove part or all of the prostate gland.
After Mr. Austin returned to the hospital on New Year’s Day, doctors found a urinary tract infection, the statement said, and on Jan. 2 they decided to transfer him to the intensive care unit “for close monitoring and a higher level of care.” The doctors found collections of abdominal fluid that they said were impairing the function of his small intestines, and drained them.
Prostate cancer is a fairly common cancer in men and is the second leading cause of cancer death among American men. But the disease usually progresses slowly.
“Prostate cancer is eminently treatable, and I hope he’ll continue to serve,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. But, he added, “I regret deeply this delay in providing an explanation.”
Karoun Demirjian and Peter Baker contributed reporting.