Obama vows ‘zero tolerance’ for national security leaks

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. "It is a source of consistent frustration—not just for my administration but for previous administrations—when this stuff happens. And we will continue to let everybody know in government, or after they leave government, that they have certain obligations that they should carry out," he said.

Pressed on whether investigations were ongoing, Obama sidestepped the question. "We consistently, whenever there is classified information that is put out into the public, we try to find out where that came from," he said.

The White House had touted Obama's hastily announced appearance—reporters were notified shortly before 9 a.m.—as another opportunity to use his bully pulpit on the economy. And he made the most of it.

The president heaped pressure on Congress to approve his stalled plan to fight unemployment, charging that stubborn Republican opposition had thwarted the creation of 1 million new jobs, and blaming "head winds" from Europe's debt crisis for weak growth.

"Given the signs of weakness in the world economy, not just in Europe but also some softening in Asia, it's critical that we take the actions we can to strengthen the American economy right now," Obama said.

If lawmakers had approved his jobs blueprint in full last year, "we'd be on track to have a million more Americans working this year, the unemployment rate would be lower, our economy would be stronger," said Obama. "Of course, Congress refused."

"In light of the head winds that we're facing right now, I urge them to reconsider," Obama said.

With stubbornly high joblessness weighing down his hopes for re-election, the president noted that Europe's troubles were partly to blame.

The "threat of renewed recession" there "matters to us because Europe is our largest economic trading partner," he said, urging key leaders there to take steps to address the continent's troubles.

He pressed Europe to stabilize its financial system, inject capital into weak banks, and craft a framework for closer cooperation on government budgets and banking policy.

"These decisions are fundamentally in the hands of Europe's leaders," he said. "Their success is good for us, and the sooner that they act, and the more decisive and concrete their actions, the sooner people and markets will regain some confidence and the cheaper the costs of cleanup will be down the road."

Obama spoke after the Labor Department reported that the number of people applying for jobless benefits dipped last week for the first time in five weeks. The figure slipped 12,000 to 377,000. The news was seen as suggesting only timid job growth. The embattled president's greatest vulnerability as he seeks re-election is the weak economy.

Even before word came down that Obama would be discussing the "head winds" from Europe, the Republican National Committee released a mocking ad cataloging the number of times he has used the term to explain why the economy is struggling.

Obama and senior aides have repeatedly cited events outside of their control when asked about anemic job growth, from the European crisis (which is now hurting American exports) to the devastating earthquake in Japan (which dampened growth in a major trading partner) to a slowdown in China (which weighs on the global economy).

Republicans committed to defeating him in November have charged that the administration is merely trying to distract from what they describe as Obama's failed policies.

"Whether the president wants to acknowledge it or not, we are now living in the Obama Economy," countered Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "No 'Post-it note' proposal can reverse the damage done by his policies over the past three and a half years."

McConnell called Obama's push for spending "baffling" and said a better remedy for the ailing economy would be the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.

But Republicans acknowledge that the situation across the Atlantic is infecting the American economy.

"The problems in Europe are serious. Their recession is affecting our economic growth today, and I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel," Republican House Speaker John Boehner told reporters on Thursday.

Obama has redoubled his efforts to get Congress to pass at least some elements of his jobs plan, which aims to protect the jobs of teachers, firefighters and police officers threatened by state and local spending cuts, and calls for boosting infrastructure spending at a time when the nation's crumbling bridges and roads hurt commerce and historically low interest rates take some of the sting out of borrowing for such projects.

House Republicans have hit back, saying that they have passed 30 bills aimed at creating jobs, only to see them die in the Democratic-held Senate.

But "the recipes that they're (Republicans are) promoting are basically the kinds of policies that would add weakness to the economy, would result in further layoffs, would not provide relief in the housing market," Obama charged.

"We've created 4.3 million new jobs over the past 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy," it's in cash-strapped state and local governments that are laying off workers, the president said.

Obama also pressed Greek voters, who will soon decide whether their crisis-hit country should stay in Europe's common currency area, the eurozone, not to quit that.

"It is in everybody's interest for Greece to remain in the eurozone," he said, warning the Greeks that "their hardships will likely be worse if they choose to exit."

Holly Bailey contributed reporting.