WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr is reviewing whether Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made public classified information when he talked about government phone tracking during the CNN Republican debate Tuesday night.
“I’m having my staff look at the transcripts of the debate right now. I didn’t watch it,” Burr, a North Carolina Republican, told reporters Wednesday. “Any time you deal with numbers — and I think it dealt with numbers — the question is, is that classified or not, or is there an open source reference to it? So it’s not as clear as just reading what he said. We’ve got to search all sorts of media outlets to see if anybody had reported that number independently.”
As he was battling with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday night over who was better at helping law enforcement track down terrorists, Cruz defended himself by saying a new law he supported increased the number of phones that can be tracked by the government.
“What (Rubio) knows is that the old program covered 20% to 30% of phone numbers to search for terrorists. The new program covers nearly 100%,” Cruz said. “That gives us greater ability to stop acts of terrorism, and he knows that that’s the case.”
Rubio immediately criticized Cruz for discussing details of the new law, called the USA Freedom Act.
“Let me be very careful in answering this, because I don’t think national television in front of 15 million people is the place to discuss classified information,” Rubio began. “Let me just be very clear: There is nothing we are allowed to do under (the new law) that we could not do before. This bill did, however, take away a valuable tool that allowed the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies to quickly and rapidly access phone records and match them up with other phone records to see who terrorists have been calling.”
Rubio added: “Because I can promise you, the next time there is an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, why didn’t we know about it and why didn’t we stop it?”
Shortly after Cruz mentioned the numbers, a Burr spokeswoman also hit Cruz over the comments.
“Cruz shouldn’t have said that,” Burr spokeswoman Becca Glover Watkins tweeted during the debate Tuesday night.
Burr didn’t suggest that Cruz violated any laws. And an intelligence community source told CNN Wednesday that Cruz may have gotten the numbers wrong but likely did not release any classified information.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.