GOP presidential debate: Patriot Act provides new litmus test

Republican candidates staked out contrary stances on renewing the Patriot Act at the onset of a national security debate on Tuesday, adding another litmus test on how to best protect the United States from foreign threats.

Newt Gingrich, the presidential race's new and unexpected front-runner, said during the CNN debate that he saw no reason to modify or not extend the USA Patriot Act, a controversial law passed under President George W. Bush in 2001 that widened the scope of permitted domestic spying activities in a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"The key distinction for the American people to recognize is the difference between national security requirements and criminal law requirements," Gingrich said, arguing that every possible tool is needed to prevent nuclear attacks on American cities.

Ron Paul, whose staunchly libertarian views have made him an outsider on foreign policy within the GOP, said the law was actually unpatriotic because it undermined American's civil liberties.

"I'm concerned as everybody about our terrorist attack," Paul said. "Today it seems too easy that our government and our Congresses are so willing to give up our liberties for our security. I have a personal belief that you never have to give up liberty for security."

After Paul pointed out that Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, was an American citizen, Gingrich scored major points in a rebuttal by pointing out that McVeigh had been successful.

Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannGillibrand becomes latest candidate scrutinized for how she eats on campaign trail Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents Yes, condemn Roseanne, but ignoring others is true hypocrisy MORE sided with Gingrich, noting that modern technology required law enforcement to use new and innovative means to combating terrorism. And Herman Cain said if changes needed to be made, he would accept them but that the Patriot Act shouldn't be summarily thrown out.