Romney hits Obama on defense cuts, calls for special counsel to probe leaks

Mitt Romney on Tuesday accused President Obama of putting the nation at risk through politically motivated intelligence leaks and defense cuts and called for a special counsel to investigate the national-security disclosures.

Romney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) national convention in Reno, Nev., aimed to paint Obama as weak on national security and naïve on foreign policy, two areas where the president has consistently polled higher than his opponent.

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The presumptive GOP nominee seized on comments from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDems urge Obama to release info on Russian links to DNC hack Hotel lobby cheers scrutiny on Airbnb GOP platform attempts middle ground on encryption debate MORE (D-Calif.) Monday, when she suggested that some of the classified leaks were coming from inside the White House. 

“The White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks,” Feinstein said during an address at the World Affairs Council.

She backtracked from her comments on Tuesday, saying in a statement that she did not in fact know the source of the national-security leaks.

“I regret my remarks are being used to impugn President Obama or his commitment to protecting national-security secrets,” Feinstein said. “I know for a fact the president is extremely troubled by these leaks.”

Romney said the leaks were a “national-security crisis,” calling the conduct from the administration “contemptible.”

“Obama appointees, who are accountable to President Obama’s attorney general, should not be responsible for investigating the leaks coming from the Obama White House,” Romney said.

“It is not enough to say the matter is being looked into, and leave it at that. When the issue is the political use of highly sensitive national-security information, it is unacceptable to say, ‘We’ll report our findings after Election Day.’ ”

Romney’s campaign suggested Feinstein was being pressured to correct her comments. A campaign spokesman said Obama had given her “the Cory Booker treatment,” a reference to the Newark, N.J., mayor taking back his statements when he called Democratic attacks on Romney’s former firm Bain Capital “nauseating.”

“Yesterday she was speaking candidly about the leaks originating from this White House,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. “Today, she was forced to walk it back.”

When asked whether White House officials contacted Feinstein, the White House referred to the senator’s Tuesday statement. Feinstein’s office declined to comment on the matter.

Feinstein’s comments on the national-security leaks highlight the political danger that the disclosure of secrets has created for the president.

When Republicans first charged that the White House was leaking for political gain, Obama called the accusations “offensive.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday downplayed Feinstein’s statements about the leaks.

“I don’t think she referenced an investigation. She referenced a book,” Carney said in a gaggle on Air Force One. “There are two experienced federal prosecutors investigating these leaks. I can’t comment on specifics of an ongoing investigation, but I can tell you as a general matter, the president takes very seriously the issue of leaking of classified information and has spoken very firmly about this.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinAs other regulators move past implementing Dodd-Frank, the SEC falls further behind Will partisan politics infect the Supreme Court? Fight for taxpayers draws fire MORE (D-Mich.), who is expected to hold a joint hearing with Feinstein on the intelligence leaks, said that Romney’s party had leaks in past administrations that were worse than Obama’s, and he suggested that some of the most recent leaks stemmed from the George W. Bush administration.

“He better take a look at the leaks in prior administrations, which are a heck of a lot worse than anything here,” Levin told reporters Tuesday. “I think we always ought to look into leaks and go back as far as we need to find out the origin of the most recent leaks, which go back before Obama.”

Romney’s attacks on the leaks and defense cuts are an attempt to push back against Obama’s foreign-policy strengths. Speaking at the VFW convention Monday, Obama said, “You don’t just have my words, you have my deeds,” in a jab at Romney’s lack of a foreign-policy record.

The presumptive GOP nominee leaves Wednesday for a four-day trip to London, Israel and Poland.

In his remarks, Romney also accused Obama of playing politics with the looming $500 billion in defense cuts over the next decade. 

Obama on Tuesday told the VFW that it’s Republicans who are trying to “wriggle” out of their commitment to tackle the deficit.

“It is a mistake — and sometimes a tragic one — to think that firmness in American foreign policy can bring only tension or conflict. The surest path to danger is always weakness and indecision,” Romney said. “Don’t bother trying to find a serious military rationale behind any of this, by the way, unless that rationale is wishful thinking.”

Romney sought to paint Obama as a weak commander in chief whose efforts to seek accommodation with America’s foes has failed. He pointed to Obama’s reset with Russia and his recent comments that Iran’s ties to Venezuela didn’t add up to a “serious” threat to national security. 

And he vowed to bring China’s “cheating” on trade to an end.

Vice President Biden slammed Romney’s speech in a statement released by Obama’s reelection campaign. 

“Gov. Romney had an opportunity to fulfill a longstanding promise by laying out his foreign-policy vision and agenda. He had a chance to say how he would lead as commander in chief. Instead, all we heard from Gov. Romney was empty rhetoric and bluster. He reflexively criticizes the president’s policies without offering any alternatives,” he said.

Biden’s lengthy statement, which included a rebuttal of several of Romney’s points, did not address the national-security leaks or defense cuts.

Romney’s toughest criticism was aimed at Obama’s policies toward Israel.

“President Obama is fond of lecturing Israel’s leaders,” Romney said. “He was even caught by a microphone deriding them. He has undermined their position, which was tough enough as it was. And even at the United Nations, to the enthusiastic applause of Israel’s enemies, he spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem.”

Romney’s comments are aimed squarely at Jewish voters ahead of his trip to Israel next week. Romney also called for a zero-enrichment policy in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, a priority for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Biden defended Obama’s stance, saying “he has done more for Israel’s security than any president since Harry Truman.”

— Amie Parnes contributed to this report.