Although Tuesday night’s Republican debate had a heavy focus on national security, candidates devolved frequently into posturing and bravado. But when, finally, a real debate over national-security policy began to peek through the fog, it was quickly shut down.
It began with a question about government surveillance directed at two of the three senators on the stage, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. This summer, Cruz voted for the USA Freedom Act, which reigned in some of the National Security Agency’s spying powers, ending a program that allowed the agency to scoop up massive amounts of information about Americans’ phone calls. Rubio, for his part, opposed it.
Cruz argued that the bill increased privacy protections, while expanding the government’s tools for targeting terrorists. Rubio shot back that the bill shut down a valuable tool for law enforcement without offering the NSA a viable alternative.
In recent campaign appearances, Rubio has repeatedly made the claim that USA Freedom did not authorize any new spying powers—but his assertion has been disputed by other people with knowledge of the programs, including Ron Wyden, Rubio’s fellow Senate Intelligence Committee member and a vehemently pro-privacy Democrat. In fact, the new system authorized by USA Freedom allows the NSA to access more phone records than it could before.
On Tuesday, Cruz echoed Wyden’s attack. “I would note that Marco knows what he’s saying isn’t true,” Cruz said. He leaned on statistics to make his point, claiming that the previous program covered 20 to 30 percent of phone numbers, while the new program covers “nearly 100 percent.”
Rubio eyed him in discomfort. “I don’t think national television in front of 15 million people is the place to discuss classified information,” he said. He went on to repeat his claim that the NSA reform bill gave the agency no new powers.