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After Paris attacks, Rubio hits Cruz on NSA surveillance vote

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio discusses "The Next Agenda for the American Presidency" at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council 2015 annual meeting in Washington November 16, 2015.

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

After a week of defending himself against persistent criticism over his stance on immigration, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio hit back at Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a rival for the 2016 Republican nomination, over a vote on domestic surveillance.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, Rubio argued that the U.S. is vulnerable.

"I think it's a distinctive issue of debate in the presidential race" Rubio told the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Monday night. "At least two of my colleagues in the Senate aspiring to the presidency, Senator Cruz in particular, have voted to weaken the U.S. intelligence programs just in the last month and a half and the weakening of U.S. intelligence gathering leaves America vulnerable." Rubio warned.

He tied the vote to the terror attacks in Paris last week, saying, "What happened in Paris could happen in a major American city at any moment at any time."

Cruz supported the USA Freedom Act -- which modified some data collection provisions of the Patriot Act -- when it came up for a vote this summer. Among other things, the bill reformed the bulk collection of data pertaining to Americans' phone records. Rubio voted against the legislation because he felt that it weakened the data collection programs too much.

Rubio, speaking to a room of CEOs- - several of whom run companies outside the United States -- took the opportunity to showcase his foreign policy acumen when it comes to the Middle East, in an attempt to cast himself as the most capable candidate in the GOP field on foreign policy.

Rubio said ISIS was "growing in influence" in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan and another consequence of this fighting has been the erosion of boundaries in the Middle East.

"Let me be frank about something because I don't want to make headlines with this, but what the heck, I think the border of Syria and Iraq is largely been erased by this conflict," Rubio said. He added that he was unsure whether the situation was permanent or not.

Rubio, a first-term senator who sits on both the Senate Foreign Relations committee and Select Committee on Intelligence, argued that domestic politics are driving President Obama's decision-making in the White House.

"I think, quite frankly, the president is constrained by not only his ideology on this issue but also by the domestic political considerations of not wanting to re-entangle us in yet another conflict but the truth is we're entangled in this conflict," he said.

One question that has come up in recent days is whether the U.S. should commit more troops to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Several Republican candidates say the numbers are insufficient, and Rubio agreed that the 50 special operators that had been authorized were "insufficient" but would not give a specific number when asked how many he would send. He said, "the numbers need to be set by the tacticians."

He also discussed whether the U.S. should accept Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict, saying he sympathized with the plight many of them have endured but explained that America's national security should supersede that concern right now.

"My problem with the migrants and the migrant situation is, it's not that we don't want to accept migrants, it's that I'm not sure we can," Rubio said. "In fact, I'm increasingly convinced because you cannot accurately do a background check on even 10,000 people."