RENO, Nev. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called for an independent investigation Tuesday into claims that the White House leaked national security information for President Barack Obama’s political gain, part of a searing speech that marked a wholesale indictment of Obama’s foreign policy.
In a race that so far has focused almost entirely on the sluggish economy, Romney also critiqued Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear threat, the violence in Syria and relations with Israel during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.
In his first foreign policy speech since emerging as the likely Republican presidential nominee, Romney accused Obama of putting politics over national security, a serious charge that went straight at a policy area where national polls show the president with the edge.
The turn also was a reminder that the increasingly biting campaign, which paused over the weekend in deference to the deadly movie theater shooting in Colorado, was on again in earnest.
“This conduct is contemptible,” 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.”
Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two federal prosecutors to get to investigate the leaks, but Romney suggested that wasn’t good enough. The White House has rejected calls for a special prosecutor, saying there is no need for one.
Romney stopped short of accusing Obama specifically of leaking information that includes details of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden last year.
He made the charge shortly before leaving on a trip to Great Britain, Israel and Poland and meetings with a host of foreign leaders.
Obama has strongly rejected the leak accusations that, until Tuesday, had been contained to Republicans in Congress.
During a news conference last month, he called the accusations “offensive” and “wrong.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney responded Tuesday by saying Obama “feels extremely strongly about this” and noting Holder’s appointment of the two federal prosecutors to investigate.
“The president has made abundantly clear that he has no tolerance for leaks and he thinks leaks are damaging to our national security interests,” Carney said.
Reflecting the campaign’s recent attention to veterans, Obama added a visit Tuesday with some of them to his fundraising schedule in Portland, Ore.
Obama slid into a booth with three middle-aged veterans who were among the lunchtime crowd at The Gateway Breakfast House. The conversation turned quickly to veteran care, including those who live in rural areas.
Traveling with Obama, campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney was resorting to “cheap attacks” on the president “that lack credibility.”
Romney referenced comments from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who said Monday that the White House appeared to be behind some leaks of classified information. Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was convinced that Obama himself did not didn’t leak secret information.
It’s been a simmering Republican complaint, quelled little by Holder’s action, in response to leaks about the bin Laden raid, as well as U.S. involvement in cyberattacks on Iran and about an al-Qaida plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner.
Feinstein said Tuesday she was “disturbed by these leaks.”
“I regret that my remarks are being used to impugn President Obama or his commitment to protecting national security secrets,” she said in a statement.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor with a business background, has for months aggressively raked Obama’s stewardship of the economy. Polls consistently have shown voters see Romney as better able to handle it.
But Romney has been unable to cut into Obama’s edge on national security issues. The administration’s counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida and especially the killing of bin Laden has undercut the label Republicans have long attached to Democrats as soft on defense.
Romney called for a total cessation of uranium enrichment in Iran, and proposed tying foreign aid to Egypt to peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel.