Did Sen. Ted Cruz disclose classified information on national television?
Those without access to the intelligence itself probably won't know for sure, but that seemed to be the implication in the reaction from presidential campaign rival and fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., during a portion of Tuesday's CNN debate that focused on their differing views on the scope of National Security Agency surveillance programs. Rubio said that in transitioning to a system without bulk collection of phone metadata that existed under the Patriot Act, the intelligence community lost tools to prevent terrorist attacks. That prompted Cruz, a Texas Republican, to snap back.
"What he knows is that the old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists. The new program covers nearly 100 percent. That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism, and he knows that that's the case," said Cruz, who supported the bipartisan bill that changed the program, known as the USA Freedom Act, that became law earlier this year.
"Let me be very careful when answering this, because I don't think national television in front of 15 million people is the place to discuss classified information," Rubio responded. "So let me just be very clear. There is nothing that we are allowed to do under this bill that we could not do before."
And there was a sign that Rubio, who is a member of the Intelligence Committee, might have a point about the information itself.
As the exchange happened, Becca Glover Watkins, the communications director for Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., tweeted simply: "Cruz shouldn't have said that."
But Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a longtime member of the Intelligence Committee, jumped to Cruz's defense on the substance.
"Senator Rubio is mistaken when he says that the USA Freedom Act does not let the government do anything that it could not do before," Wyden said in a statement, citing a specific provision of the new law.
"Section 102 of the USA Freedom Act, which I first proposed in 2013, gave law enforcement and intelligence agencies new authorities to obtain records in an emergency and get court approval after the fact," Wyden said."It also ended the mass surveillance of law-abiding Americans, which violated core American rights without making our country any safer."
Speaking Tuesday morning at a forum sponsored by Politico, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to open the door to revisiting intelligence collection and related issues in 2016. The Kentucky Republican was on the same side as Rubio during the original debate.
"I think weakening the Patriot Act was a mistake, and we had internal divisions among the Republicans over whether that was the appropriate thing to do," McConnell said.
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