Mitt Romney accused President Obama's White House Tuesday of leaking classified national security secrets, citing a similar charge by the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But shortly after Romney delivered his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Reno, the intelligence chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, backed off her earlier suggestion that someone on Obama's staff was the source of the leak. And, she said, she regretted being used by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
In his address, Romney stopped short of saying the president himself had leaked classified information used in recent news reports. But he alleged that someone in the White House was responsible and that the security breaches were political — intended to make Obama appear tough on terrorism in an election year.
"Exactly who in the White House betrayed these secrets? Did a superior authorize it?" Romney said. "These are things that Americans are entitled to know — and they are entitled to know it now."
The remarks by Romney, who flew to London later in the day for a week of meetings with European leaders, followed Feinstein's statement Monday that "the White House has to understand that some of this [leaked information] is coming from their ranks."
Her accusation marked the first time a high-profile Democrat had challenged Obama's assertion that his White House is not behind the leaks.
"The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive," Obama said last month. "It's wrong."
Within an hour of Romney's speech, Feinstein backed off her comment.
"I stated that I did not believe the president leaked classified information. I shouldn't have speculated beyond that," Feinstein said, "because the fact of the matter is I don't know the source of the leaks."
The Romney campaign responded by suggesting Feinstein had been pressured to recant.
"Yesterday, she was speaking candidly about the leaks originating from this White House. Today, she was forced to walk it back," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said.
Feinstein's intelligence committee discussed the leaks in a closed session Tuesday afternoon. The Globe requested comment from the committee's seven Democrats, in addition to Feinstein; none agreed to speak on the record.
A spokesperson for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that with no hard evidence connecting the Obama White House to the leaks, Kerry "isn't shooting from the hip on such a serious subject."
The uproar over intelligence leaks began last month, after a series of news reports and a book by Newsweek correspondent Daniel Klaidman revealed classified details of national security operations.
The leaks included reports of a pair of computer viruses developed by the United States and Israel — one that reportedly caused significant setbacks in Iran's ability to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, and another to eavesdrop on the regime's e-mails, telephone calls, and other communications.
A third leak — considered by many experts to be more damaging — was the revelation that the United States had a double agent in the ranks of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is considered the most dangerous and determined offshoot of the terrorist network responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In one article, the New York Times uncovered Obama's secret "kill list," relying in part on interviews with unnamed current and former national security advisers to the president. The story painted Obama as highly aggressive on, and personally involved in, counterterrorism decisions — a depiction that has fueled Republican speculation that the leaks are designed to bolster the president's image as he seeks reelection against Romney.
"A really disturbing aspect of this is that one could draw the conclusion from reading these articles that it is an attempt to further the president's political ambitions for the sake of his re-election at the expense of our national security," Arizona Senator John McCain said on the Senate floor, after the stories were published.
Some specialists on government secrecy said it is possible that the leaked information is not accurate.
"What [the White House] can't say is sometimes a leak is done deliberately for propaganda" overseas, said Elizabeth Bancroft, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in McLean, Va. "You can't discuss that in the press, but there are authorized leaks."
Romney appears to be operating under the assumption that the leaks are legitimate, calling the disclosures "a national security crisis" in his speech to the VFW.
"And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel, with explanation and consequence," Romney added, criticizing the ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by US attorneys from Maryland and the District of Columbia, who were appointed by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
"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, suggesting investigators will withhold their findings until after the election.
Intelligence experts stressed that the leaks may not be illegal if those responsible were high-level officials in the national security or intelligence bureaucracies.
"Many senior officials have authority to declassify information," said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "Whether the decision is advisable or appropriate is a separate question."
Meanwhile, federal law stipulates when revealing classified information is specifically unauthorized; examples include disclosing the identities of intelligence operatives, secret codes and nuclear weapons designs.
Such a violation was at the heart of the criminal case against former Vice President Dick Cheney's aide, I. Lewis Libby, who was convicted of four counts of obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements after an investigation into who leaked the identify of Valerie Plame, a CIA officer who was married to a vocal critic of the US invasion of Iraq.
Bancroft said convictions like Libby's are rare, that "almost all leak investigations result in nothing."
What's worrisome, she said, is the extent to which the issue is being politicized in the heat of a presidential campaign.
"Now we have the political cover, making it harder to tease out the truth," she said. "They will say anything, whether it is true or not, to make the other look sneaky."