Obama at the White House Friday (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama indignantly hit back Friday at "offensive" charges that his administration disclosed vital national security secrets to beef up his image in an election year, insisting he has a "zero tolerance" approach to leaks that endanger America's interests.
And Obama, speaking at a hastily called session with reporters in the White House briefing room, defended his handling of the weak economy, insisting that "the private sector is doing fine." He blamed cuts in government spending and "head winds" from Europe for sluggish growth.
That drew an immediate rebuke from Mitt Romney, who declared at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, that the president was "defining what it means to be distracted and out of touch."
"For the president of the United States to stand up and say the private sector is doing fine is going to go down in history. It's an extraordinary miscalculation and misunderstanding by a president who is out of touch," Romney said.
Obama weighed in publicly for the first time on congressional anger at a series of news reports packed with details about programs like America's targeted assassination of suspected extremists and its covert cyberwar on Iran's nuclear activities.
"We have mechanisms in place where, if we can root out folks who have leaked, they will suffer consequences. In some cases it's criminal, these are criminal acts when they release information like this. And we will conduct thorough investigations as we have in the past," he said.
"We're dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people, our families, or our military personnel, or our allies. And so we don't play with that," the president said.
Obama faces escalating pressure from Congress to ferret out the sources of the revelations.
In a rare and sharply worded rebuke, the top Democrats and Republicans on Congress' intelligence committees said this week that the disclosures endanger national security and vowed to get to the bottom of who was behind them. Some Republicans, like Sen. John Cornyn, have pushed for an independent investigation, saying that the Obama administration can't be trusted to police itself. Obama's remarks about existing mechanisms appeared to be a rejection of that idea, which his spokesman also dismissed on Thursday.
Asked about the news reports, Obama said he would not confirm "the details of what are supposed to be classified items."
"The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It's wrong," he declared.
"They're classified for a reason: because they're sensitive, and because the people involved may in some cases be in danger if they're carrying out some of these missions," the president said.
"And when this information—or reports whether true or false—surface on the front page of newspapers, that makes the job of folks on the front lines tougher, and it makes my job tougher, which is why since I've been in office my attitude has been zero tolerance for these kinds of leaks and speculation," he said.Read More »from Obama vows ‘zero tolerance’ for national security leaks