ESTRICH: Where was Lloyd?

It is exactly what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III did not want.

Clearly, he didn’t want anyone to know that he, like millions of American men, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. By not telling his commanding officer, the president, and not disclosing his surgery and his infection, and insisting on keeping secret his hospitalization in the intensive care unit, he turned all of it into front-page news. What might have been a one-day story dominated the news for days as the truth dribbled out.

It was never a private matter. The fact that the No. 2 man in the chain of command, second only to the commander in chief, was totally impaired by general anesthesia and then, because of complications, under intensive care, is something his boss, his deputy, members of Congress and the public had a right to know.

His failure, and the failure of his four aides who knew about it before the president did, to disclose is a major breach of trust. The president says he continues to have confidence in Austin, but it’s not at all clear why. He has demonstrated that he has terrible judgment, which is a fatal flaw for a man in his position.

His defenders say that the secretary is a very private man. That dog don’t hunt. In assuming the post of secretary of Defense, he relinquished his right to privacy. According to medical professionals being quoted across the media, this was major cancer surgery, not a minor elective operation. And even if most men don’t face the serious complications that Austin did, general anesthesia is required and complications do occur, and the secretary was quite literally out of commission at a time when the United States was involved in two wars in Israel and Ukraine, and our troops were being fired on.

Prostate cancer is, thankfully, not the death sentence it once was. Treatment has vastly improved, although prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among American men. According to the medical reports, Austin’s cancer was detected early and his prognosis is “excellent.” He is healing, and even those on Capitol Hill who have been most critical of his silence have taken care to wish him well, as I do. But there is no excuse for what he didn’t say and didn’t do.

It is not only a national security issue, although that was of paramount importance. The secretary was diagnosed after screening of the antigens used to identify prostate cancer showed changes in December. “Changes in his laboratory evaluation in early December 2023 identified prostate cancer, which required treatment,” according to the medical statement from Walter Reed Hospital. It could have been a teachable moment — a public reminder of the critical importance of PSA screening for all men, of the advances in treatment and cures, and the need for even more research. It could have been an occasion for a man of great accomplishments to show his courage and fortitude in facing a diagnosis that all men fear, instead of cloaking it with apparent embarrassment or even shame. Austin is surely not responsible for his diagnosis, but he is responsible, as are his top aides, for the way it was handled.

Republicans and some Democrats have publicly questioned whether the Pentagon broke any laws in creating this crisis. The White House chief of staff has reportedly sent a memo requiring every Cabinet department to submit for review their policies dealing with such emergencies. What should go without saying is now being said, and required.

But it will take more than a memo to restore the credibility of the Pentagon to deal with the crisis of its own making.