McConnell: Wire-tap limitations need rethinking

Posted at 8:36 PM, Dec 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-16 20:36:05-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate may re-open debate on National Security Agency wire-tapping authority following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told The Associated Press on Wednesday, a divisive issue already roiling the GOP presidential field.

The Kentucky Republican said in an interview in his Capitol office that the terror attacks abroad and on U.S. soil have raised questions about Congress' wisdom in limiting the authority earlier this year, something he personally opposed. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida sided with McConnell at the time but Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was on the other side, and the two GOP presidential candidates have been clashing heatedly on the issue, including in Tuesday night's debate.

"There could be some second thoughts among both Republicans and Democrats in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino about the appropriateness of watering down our national security tools," McConnell said. "It's an area we're going to take a look at. Because look, national security and these threats of terrorism are now right at the top of the list of concerns of the American people."

McConnell declined to offer specifics on how the issue might be addressed once Congress comes into session next year, but said: "I think we're going to have more and more discussion about that whole issue."

The NSA issue pits privacy rights proponents against those pressing for tough post-Sept. 11 scrutiny. Rubio and McConnell both opposed dismantling the once-secret NSA program revealed by contractor Edward Snowden that until recently collected the landline calling records of nearly every American.

Cruz took the other side, supporting passage of the USA Freedom Act that limited government collection of phone records, instead keeping them in phone companies' hands and requiring a court order to search them.

Cruz and Rubio clashed over the issue in Tuesday's debate, with Cruz at one point citing figures on percentages of phone numbers available to search in order to argue that the current system is better than the old one, partly because it includes cell records. Rubio cautioned against discussing classified information, then went on to dispute Cruz.

That led to a flap on Capitol Hill Wednesday when the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, told reporters that he'd asked staff to look into whether Cruz had revealed classified information. Hours later Burr and the panel's top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, issued a joint statement stating that no investigation was under way. Committee aides did not respond to questions seeking clarity on the seeming discrepancy between Burr's earlier comments and the statement with Feinstein.

McConnell said he did not know anything about that matter. And as he always does when questioned on the presidential campaign or candidates, McConnell refused to weigh in, though his clashes with Cruz are well known.