Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney accused the White House of leaking classified information to the press for political gain and called for a special counsel to carry out a “full and prompt investigation” into who is responsible for dishing out the national security goods.
He made the attack just a day after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, suggested that she, too, suspected the leaks came from someone in the White House. On Tuesday, however, the California Democrat tried to take back her remarks, saying she doesn’t know and should not have speculated.
Mr. Romney’s attacks, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, marks a rare turn away from domestic issues and to foreign policy. The Republican candidate also blames the president for looming defense spending cuts and says Mr. Obama has bungled the situation in Syria.
The attack on the White House about leaks underscored a potential lingering problem for Mr. Obama, who in the past month has found himself on the defensive over several news stories — including one about a covert U.S. cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program and another on the so-called terrorist “kill list” — that appear to hinge on top-secret information.
Led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, Republicans have argued that the administration leaked the material to make the president look good and that a special counsel should dig into the matter, rather than the two U.S. attorneys who Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. tapped to lead an internal investigation.
“This conduct is contemptible,” Mr. Romney said of the leaks of classified information. “It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special prosecutor, with explanation and consequence.”
Asked about the remarks, White House press secretary Jay Carney said he wouldn’t comment in the middle of the investigation by the two U.S. attorneys, but that Mr. Obama condemns leaking.
“As a general matter, the president has made abundantly clear that he has no tolerance for leaks and he thinks leaks are damaging to our national security interests,” Mr. Carney said.
On Monday, Mrs. Feinstein seemed to bolster Mr. Romney’s case. In a speech to the World Affairs Council, she said that “the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks.”
Mrs. Feinstein released a statement Tuesday saying she had gone too far in her speculation on the source of the leaks and criticized Mr. Romney for using her to attack the president.
“I was asked whether the White House might be responsible for recent national security leaks,” she said. “I stated that I did not believe the president leaked classified information. I shouldn’t have speculated beyond that, because the fact of the matter is I don’t know the source of the leaks.”
Noting Mr. Holder’s appointment of two U.S. attorneys to investigate the leaks, Mrs. Feinstein said she is disappointed that Mr. Romney used her comments to accuse the White House of not being more forthcoming.
“I know we are in campaign season, but I hope the investigation proceeds without political accusation or interference from anyone,” she said.
But Mr. Romney showed no sign of letting up: “What kind of White House would reveal classified material for political gain? I’ll tell you right now: Mine won’t,” he said.
Mr. Romney delivered his speech to the VFW, meeting in Reno, Nev., a day after Mr. Obama’s own appearance, where he rattled off what he saw as his administration’s accomplishments: returning the troops from Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda leaders and putting the nation on a course to leave Afghanistan in 2014.
He claimed that Republicans want to hide their support of the debt deal last year that set into motion the $1.2 billion in defense and domestic spending cuts, which will take effect Jan. 1 if Congress fails to find common ground on alternative spending reductions.
“Instead of making tough choices to reduce the deficit, they’d rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks big cuts in our military,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Romney tried to turn the tables Tuesday, blaming Mr. Obama for the budget impasse. “This is not the time for the president’s radical cuts in the military,” he said.
Mr. Romney is preparing for a three-nation overseas trip that includes meetings this week and next with top leaders in England, Poland and Israel. The trek will put him on par with what many Democrats see as one of the president’s strong points.
“One thing the governor did not talk about today was al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden said after the speech. “That’s not surprising. When he last ran for president, Gov. Romney was asked what he would do about bin Laden. He said then: ‘It is not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.’”
Mr. Romney instead focused in on the notion that the president’s failure to speed up the nation’s recovery has diminished its stature.
“The president’s policies have made it harder to recover from the deepest recession in 70 years, exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify, compromised our national security secrets,” Mr. Romney said. “And in dealings with other nations, he has given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved, and apology where it is not due.”
In attempting to “reset” relations with Russia, he said, Mr. Obama abandoned Poland and the Czech Republic by walking away from the Bush-era anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe. He said Russia thanked the United States by arming Syrian President Bashar Assad “as he slaughtered the Syrian people.”
Mr. Romney also said he would be more supportive of Israel and there is “no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability.” If elected, he said, he would fight to ensure that any talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program be based on stopping their enrichment of uranium — though the same basic request has been made before.
“The Iranian regime claims the right to enrich nuclear material for supposedly peaceful purposes. This claim is discredited by years of deception. A clear line must be drawn: There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, period,” he said, without explaining what he would do if Iran did not agree to those terms.
• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.