Rubio, Cruz clash over NSA surveillance

Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioChamber endorses bill to block proposed estate tax rules Juan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzJuan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race Is Georgia turning blue? MORE exchanged harsh words over the National Security Agency on Tuesday, highlighting a key difference between the two rising Republican presidential candidates.

Cruz (R-Texas) was quick to defend his vote to reform federal surveillance powers, which Rubio (R-Fla.) has attempted to use against him amid new fears on global terrorism.

Instead of weakening powers at the NSA, Cruz said during Tuesday evening's presidential debate, his support for a reform bill this summer actually expanded the spy agency’s powers, by widening the scope of Americans’ phone records it can access.

Rubio’s attacks are “knowingly false,” he said, calling them “Alinsky-like” tactics similar to those from President Obama.

Rubio, in response, hammered both Cruz and Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE (R-Ky.), who has staked his fledgling campaign on a libertarian platform of staunch opposition to the NSA.

“The terrorist that attacked us in San Bernardino was an American citizen,” Rubio claimed, about the California shooting earlier this month. “I bet you we wish we would’ve had access to five years of his records.”

The old NSA phone program, which came to a halt last month, collected phone records about millions of Americans’ calls. The records did not include the content of people’s calls, but instead helped intelligence officials connect the dots between suspects, supporters claimed.

Paul questioned those claims.

“We are not any safer” with the government collecting bulk records about Americans, Paul said. “In fact we’re less safe.”

The former program kept hold of people’s records for five years. Under the new system, the NSA will have to obtain a court order to retrieve the records from private phone companies, which tend to retain them for roughly 18 months.

There are multiple other intelligence programs for gathering various forms of people’s communications, however.

According to reports, the NSA program ran into a number of stumbling blocks, including gathering records about people’s cellphone calls.   

“What [Rubio] knows is that the old program covered 20 to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists,” Cruz claimed on Tuesday evening. “The new program covers nearly 100 percent.”

Rubio, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sidestepped discussing details of the program, saying “I don’t think national television, in front of 15 million people, is the place to discuss classified information.”

“I promise you the next time there is an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to ask is why didn’t we know about it,” he said.

This story was updated at 9:38 p.m.