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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's spy agency and national police force are so constrained by a lack of resources that they can’t keep close track of all the Islamic extremists who may be a potential threat at home and they have also had to abandon some counter-espionage work and criminal investigations, according to current and former intelligence and police officials.
Ray Boisvert, former assistant director of intelligence at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said the spy agency and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would need extra operatives if they were to be able to monitor more of the people they see as a possible threat.
Police say they have investigations into 90 high-risk suspects who have either returned from helping foreign militant groups or who are planning to go abroad.
Canada was stunned by two deadly attacks last week that police said were the work of homegrown radicals, and the government has promised to increase the powers of the nation’s security services. A gunman killed a soldier at Ottawa’s national war memorial before launching an attack on the Canadian Parliament on Oct. 22, and two days earlier a man ran down two soldiers in Quebec, killing one.
Boisvert, who left CSIS in 2012 and is now a security consultant to private firms, said the agency and the RCMP have already had to switch resources away from a number of key areas to counter the threat. He estimates that by the time he departed, 85 percent of the agency's work was focused on counter-terrorism.
It can take dozens of people to properly track one suspect, he told Reuters in an interview.
"So if there are 80 or 90 possible suspects out there ... there is no way we are going to surveil all of them," Boisvert said. "Even if we doubled the resources at the RCMP and CSIS, we’re never going to surveil them all."
Neither CSIS or the RCMP responded to requests for comment sent on Thursday.
Michael Peirce, the current assistant director of intelligence at CSIS, told a Senate committee this week that the agency could only really keep close tracks on about a quarter of its targets.
Boisvert said that as counter-terrorism needs grew after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. "we purposely ignored counter-espionage and counter-intelligence," he said.
"It's not that it disappeared because the Russians are going to stop now because we're all too busy fighting violent jihadism ... They ramped up their abilities at the end of the Cold War and it's the same with China, same with Iran."
He added: "We purposely chose to ignore it. So there are threats out there and without new resources CSIS will continue - as will the RCMP - to shut down important investigations."
Boisvert said he thought important probes would continue to be shut down, whether into gangs, organized crime, even corruption, as resources were switched to the battle against Islamic extremists.
Last week, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said the surveillance and investigation of potential threats was "a drain on resources". The RCMP has moved 250 officers from financial and organized crime investigations to bolster the 180 officers on its national security teams.
"We've heard someone asking 'why don't you put 24-hour surveillance on all high-risk individuals?'" Paulson told a news conference. "Well, okay. But there's not going to be anybody doing anything else" if that happens, he said.
The heightened monitoring and investigation of potential threats is straining Canada's security apparatus at a time when Ottawa has been trying to curb a big budget deficit.
The RCMP budget in the year ended March 31, 2014 fell to C$2.9 billion from C$3.1 billion in the previous fiscal year.
The CSIS budget more than doubled to C$540 million in 2011/12 from 10 years earlier. As the cuts came into effect the budget fell to C$496 million in 2012/13 before recovering to C$513 million in 2013/14.
Neither Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who shot dead a soldier and then launched the attack on parliament, nor the Quebec attacker Martin Rouleau, were among those under surveillance at the time of the attacks, police said.
A U.S. government source said Zehaf-Bibeau was regarded as a threat by Canadian authorities but not a high enough one to warrant constant surveillance. The RCMP had dropped its surveillance of Rouleau on Oct. 9.
"Given the current environment there is going to have to be an investment made by Canadians into a more robust service because we're in this ... for the long haul," said Boisvert. "This is not going to be a quick little hit and make do."
CSIS itself has been criticized for not having rigorous enough national operating standards. The independent Security Intelligence Review Committee, which acts as a watchdog over CSIS, said in a report last week that the CSIS's regional teams "operate in total isolation from one another and communicate only sporadically with their HQ counterparts."
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Martin Howell