04/20/2015 02:43 EDT | Updated 06/20/2015 05:59 EDT

Bill C-51: Terror Fight Hampering Work On Other Files, Senior Mountie Says

OTTAWA - Shifting hundreds of RCMP officers to counter-terrorism duty has hurt the national police force's efforts to fight organized crime and espionage, a senior Mountie says.

The resource challenge is "negatively impacting" the force's ability to do everything it's expected to do, says Mike Cabana, deputy RCMP commissioner for federal policing.

"As a result, the RCMP recognizes that it needs to find a longer-term solution to be able to respond to the breadth of its federal policing mandate," Cabana told the Senate national security committee Monday.

"I can't tell you what our solution is because we don't have a solution right now. So we are looking at options."

Concerns about the threat of homegrown extremism have prompted the RCMP to move more than 600 officers to the terrorism file from organized crime cases and other areas.

That has prompted criticism from the NDP and Liberal public safety critics that the Mounties are being stretched too thin.

The Canadian Press reported Friday that the Conservative government plans to earmark resources in the federal budget Tuesday to help security agencies carry out enhanced responsibilities under new anti-terrorism legislation.

The bill is undergoing a pre-study by the Senate committee as it makes its way to third reading in the House of Commons.

The government says the bill is needed to prevent jihadi-inspired violence that endangers Canadians.

Civil libertarians and privacy advocates have denounced the legislation as a threat to law-abiding citizens.

The bill would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service new powers to derail terror plots, not just collect and analyze information about them. CSIS would be allowed to undertake clandestine activities that violate constitutional rights as long as a judge approves.

In addition, the bill would permit much easier sharing of federal security information.

The legislation would also make it easier for the RCMP to obtain a peace bond to restrict the movements of a suspect or make a preventative arrest to stop a terrorist act.

Existing law requires a fear that someone will commit a terrorism offence before police can exercise these powers. The new, lower threshold would be grounds to fear a person may commit a terrorist act.

The current hurdle makes it impractical to use these tools as it is essentially the same as the threshold to lay criminal charges, Cabana told the senators Monday.

To be in a position to lay charges, it takes time to investigate and collect the necessary evidence, he said.

"There are situations where we do not have the luxury of time. To ensure the safety of our communities, Canadians and the citizens of other countries, law enforcement must have the ability to take immediate action," Cabana said.

"I must emphasize that these tools will be used in a limited number of circumstances within the context of an active criminal investigation."

CSIS director Michel Coulombe told the committee the threat to Canada has changed since 1984, when the spy service was created to deal primarily with the slow-burning challenge of Cold War espionage.

"A watching brief will not suffice in the face of ever-more-direct threats to Canadians' security and way of life," Coulombe said.

"Most recently, we have observed a steady increase in the number of terrorist travellers, including those who have travelled, returned from travel or aspire to do so."

Last year CSIS said some 145 Canadians had travelled abroad to engage in terrorist activities, with about one-third of them in Iraq and Syria, where militants have carried out numerous atrocities.

The number of Canadians who have left for Iraq and Syria has increased by about 50 per cent in the last three or four months, Coulombe said.

He said the disruption provisions in the anti-terrorism bill would allow CSIS to carry out "a vast array of activities" to try to squelch plots — from blocking financial transactions to tampering with equipment.

Leo Russomanno, representing the Criminal Lawyers' Association, suggested to the senators the bill would eventually be found inconsistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"Primarily what we're against is unconstitutional legislation."

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Also on HuffPost

Photo gallery 5 Things To Know About The Anti-Terror Law See Gallery