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 Islamophobia.

The Dec. 2 shootings by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik had 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 fortresslike Virginia headquarters, the agency’s No. 2 official, David S. Cohen, wanted to push back against anti-Muslim discourse. 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 parts of the world where the CIA operates, they say, enables the spy agency to understand the thinking of foreign adversaries.

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