Shortly after supporters of the Islamic State gunned down 14 people in California last year, the CIA’s deputy director assembled a group of Muslim employees to talk about Islam.
The Dec. 2 shootings by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik illustrated the United States’ vulnerability to terrorist attacks inspired by the Islamic State and ignited a heated debate over the role of Muslims here. Presidential contender Donald Trump’s subsequent call to ban Muslims from entering the country had offended many Americans but resonated with others.
In a seventh-floor conference room at the CIA’s fortress-like Virginia headquarters, the agency’s No. 2 official, David Cohen, wanted to push back. Speaking to several dozen employees, Cohen had a simple message, those present said, about attempts to marginalize Muslim employees: “zero tolerance.”
For agency leaders, telegraphing their support for the CIA’s small cadre of Muslim employees was crucial, not out of altruism but because they see their presence as “mission critical.” Having a workforce linked to many of the parts of the world where the CIA works, they say, enables the spy agency to understand the thinking of foreign adversaries.
The debate over America’s religious diversity has only intensified after the June 12 shooting in Orlando, another attack by an apparent supporter of the Islamic State.
In an effort to increase awareness about Muslims who take part in sensitive national security work, the agency permitted nearly a dozen employees to speak with a Washington Post reporter on the condition they be identified in accordance with agency restrictions.
The uncommon decision to introduce current employees, including multiple undercover officers, to the media reflects the pressure the agency faces to show it is becoming more diverse. A 2015 study commissioned by the agency found that racial and ethnic minorities, who account for 23.9 percent of the workforce, are underrepresented at senior levels, and that diversity is not a priority for CIA executives.
The study did not specifically address the presence of Muslims on agency payrolls. While the CIA says it does not keep statistics on religion,officials acknowledge that Muslims represent a tiny percentage of the overall workforce.
In an interview, Director John Brennan said he had taken steps to hold senior personnel accountable for making the CIA more heterogeneous. “I can think of no better department that can make a better business case for diversity and inclusion than the CIA,” he said.
The employees themselves described their fellow Muslims in terms of a “handful” of individuals. While the former head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center was a convert to Islam, another former officer, Yaya Fanusie, said he knew at most eight other Muslims at agency headquarters when he worked there from 2005 to 2012.
Most of the current employees interviewed by The Post said their religion has not been an impediment to their career and suggested the CIA – with its well-traveled officer corps – may be more welcoming than most workplaces.
Many of the agency’s Muslims are naturalized Americans, who said they were proud that the U.S. government had trusted them with its most closely guarded secrets, even though some had barely obtained U.S. citizenship before entering the CIA.
One Muslim officer, who was born in South Asia, came to the United States for graduate school and joined the agency shortly afterward. Hired as an analyst, she later became an operations officer and now holds a senior position in the Counterterrorism Center, leading a unit that tracks a Middle Eastern militant group.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, she has been at the center of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. After 9/11, she authored the first critical intelligence report for policymakers on Pakistan.
In her work as a case officer overseas, the woman, who is undercover, said her roots and religion helped her connect with potential assets. That the U.S. government had given such a sensitive job to someone who shared their background might inspire them to collaborate.
“To get you to give me your country’s secrets, you have to really believe I’m an American,” she said. “That I am going to protect you.”
But Muslims at this clannish organization also described being caught between two worlds: the agency they serve and the communities from which they come. Across the Muslim world, and in U.S. Muslim communities, many people remain hostile to an organization identified with the detainee abuse and drone strikes primarily directed at Muslims since the 9/11 attacks.
A 2014 Senate report described the shocking levels of brutality that CIA interrogators used on terrorism suspects in a program President Obama said eroded America’s standing overseas. Last week, the agency released documents adding detail to what is known about the grim operations of CIA “black site” prisons.
While the “enhanced interrogation” program ended in 2009, the agency has continued to conduct drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. According to the Long War Journal, CIA strikes in Pakistan have killed almost 3,000 militants and more than 150 civilians.
Muslim officers acknowledged the CIA is viewed with suspicion in their communities. Many would like to push back but usually don’t, for fear of revealing themselves as agency employees.
CIA officers are discouraged or barred from discussing their employment with anyone beyond close family and friends. Disclosure to foreign nationals, even if they are family members, is especially problematic.Those restrictions also made it difficult to tell cohesive stories of their experiences, even with agency blessing.
Former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin said the Muslim world’s hostility toward the agency could only be eroded with time. “It’s an unfortunate byproduct of 12 years of war, during which the United States has had to take tactical actions to protect itself,” he said.
The operations officer said that most people from her South Asian community here would have a hard time believing that one of their own could become a senior CIA officer.
“That dialogue is where I bump into them saying ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” she said. But she remains silent. “What am I going to do, argue and say, ‘I am at the table with Mr. Brennan?’ ”
In interviews, the officers used pseudonyms; the Post is identifying them by their jobs. Many were barred from naming the nation of their birth, even if it was obvious. The officers were allowed to describe their work only in general terms, and none acknowledged the agency’s drone program. At least two security officers were present at interviews, at times cutting off employees when they veered into especially sensitive areas.
In their daily work life, some employees described what they called “microaggressions” related to their religion or ethnicity.
Last year, the agency held a cake-baking contest and posted a photo of the winning entry on its internal website. The cake’s frosting was decorated with the black flag used by the Islamic State, engulfed in flames. The photo showed a knife cutting into the cake’s flag.
Although most Westerners associate that flag with the Islamic State, it displays the Shahada, a holy creed, whose desecration would be offensive to Muslims. People called to complain, and the photo was taken down.
The military analyst said none of those who complained were Muslims. (Employees also held a gingerbread contest and someone did a version of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.)
Employees say they have sought to increase coworkers’ familiarity with their religion or cultures by, for example, arranging an Iftar dinner during Ramadan.
“A lot of people, the only Muslims they know or interact with are the terrorists, and it’s good for them to know there are Muslims they work with,” the military analyst said.
While employees were barred from discussing politics, they expressed anxiety about working for a commander-in-chief who, as Trump suggested, might treat Muslims differently.
“Would your clearance be [impacted]? Would it be harder for me to get access to certain programs?” the military analyst asked. “Those are real concerns.”
Brennan, speaking prior to the Orlando attacks, addressed Trump’s message directly. “It’s a very simplistic and very misleading and very corrosive attitude, that harms our engagement . . . in the Muslim world, but also I think harms the unity and the integration that we have been so proud of here,” he said.
Some employees who emigrated to the United States or whose parents did so said they had been stereotyped because of their original nationality or ethnicity, not their religion.
Although the military analyst speaks only a little Urdu and no Arabic, some colleagues at the Directorate of Operations, which relies on native foreign language speakers, automatically took her for a linguist. Someone ordered her an Arabic keyboard. People there “would assume I spoke whatever language they needed,” she said.
CIA leaders would like to make the agency a more diverse place, capable of penetrating the countries where it works. But hiring and retaining a globally rooted staff remains a challenge. For one thing, it can take years for naturalized Americans, or people with close ties to other nations, to get security clearances.
If the CIA can achieve that goal, it will mean that more officers will find themselves, like the senior operations officer, at the tip of the U.S. counterterrorism spear.
“We are hunting terrorists and those terrorists are Muslims, and they may or may not be from countries that our parents came from, if not us ourselves,” she said.
She said she was energized by her rejection of militants’ use of Islam as a banner for their cause. “As a Muslim, bin Laden didn’t ask me if it was okay to do what he did,” she said. “I’m a Muslim, too. It had an impact on me and my life.”
“How do I feel about it?” she said. “Angry. Seriously pissed off.”