A CIA officer lied to a female employee about opening an investigation into a male co-worker she said was sexually harassing her — and then rejected her complaint for being untimely. Another agency employee was retaliated and discriminated against after reporting an instance of sexual assault. A third woman resigned from her contract position with the intelligence agency because she felt she had no recourse against a male colleague who was harassing her.
These are just some of the allegations made in dozens of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission appeals filed by CIA employees and contractors over the last decade. The previously unreported legal documents lend credence to recent reports of a widespread breakdown in the CIA office charged with responding to allegations of misconduct, describing often invisible aspects of the CIA’s process for dealing with such reports and detailing the barriers people face when appealing to internal agency mechanisms for protection and adjudication.
The classified nature of intelligence work makes it especially difficult for people to speak up about legitimate grievances, even within their own agencies.
“In the intelligence community, victims of sexual harassment face a constant concern of the agency revoking their security clearance or abandoning them,” Kristin Alden, a prominent Washington, D.C., employment lawyer who represents intelligence community workers in discrimination and harassment cases, told The Intercept. “These are mostly women — they are overseas, they are undercover, they are not using their real names, they are alone and isolated and don’t have family or friends with them. It’s easy for managers to threaten and intimidate in these kinds of situations.”
The secrecy shrouding the CIA’s internal functions extends even to Congress. Unlike most whistleblowers, intelligence community whistleblowers’ disclosures to Congress are only legally protected in certain “urgent” cases, and even then, they are required to first give their own agency’s oversight officials notice that they intend to communicate with lawmakers. Additionally, the whistleblower protections that do exist don’t always apply to intelligence community contractors, which comprise a large portion of intelligence personnel.
That status quo was recently disrupted. As Politico reported last month, at least three female CIA employees have contacted the House Intelligence Committee this year to describe the ways the CIA has discouraged women from filing complaints. According to the CIA’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity-mandated report on harassment, the agency has received 13 complaints of sexual harassment since 2018. That’s far fewer than the other types of complaints lodged with the agency, which received 102 total complaints in 2022 — more than double the complaints the previous year.
One of the women who contacted the congressional committee told her lawyer that 54 women at the CIA have been victims of sexual assault or harassment over the past decade and have had their cases improperly handled, Politico reported. Kevin Byrnes, who represents at least three CIA employees alleging sexual harassment and assault, added that the CIA’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, which handles harassment complaints, “has been a mechanism for deflection and interference.”
Congressional oversight committees are now investigating. Members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, or HPSCI, have written to CIA Director Bill Burns to ask for help probing the allegations. In the Senate, Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner and Vice Chair Marco Rubio wrote to the CIA inspector general to “initiate an immediate investigation” into the CIA’s mishandling of sexual harassment and assault complaints.
The Intercept reviewed dozens of appeals filed by CIA employees with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal body that rules on cases of workplace harassment. The records shed light on the agency’s internal handling of sexual harassment and assault allegations, and support the claims now being probed by HPSCI that the CIA mishandles such cases. These include overturned rulings in which the CIA’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity failed to properly adjudicate claims; instances where sexual harassment, assault, and racial discrimination fell to the wayside, thanks to a 45-day statute of limitations; and one allegation of a CIA Office of Equal Employment Opportunity employee attempting to intimidate a female worker out of filing a complaint.
Asked about the appeals reviewed by The Intercept, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, said that allegations leveled against the agency were disturbing and would be investigated in full.
“A survivor’s ability to report their story and reach out for help is critical in pursuing justice and improving safety,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “Sexual assault cases already go underreported, so any situation in which this reporting is being actively discouraged by a person or an institution should not be taken lightly.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat who also sits on the committee, told The Intercept, “There must be no room at CIA or any other intelligence agency for people who commit sexual misconduct — or those who cover it up.” He added, “I look forward to full cooperation from agency leadership as HPSCI continues its investigation.”
Neither the CIA nor the agency’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity director responded to The Intercept’s request for comment.
For federal employees and contractors, an agency’s equal employment opportunity office is the place to go with an official complaint of harassment or discrimination. If the office determines there is enough evidence to pick up the complaint and the dispute cannot be solved through mediation, it will investigate and issue a finding. The complainant can then ask for a ruling from the agency or request a hearing before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While this process takes place in private, the commission publishes anonymized decisions in cases that come before it on appeal, giving a window into how the CIA handles these cases.
One appeal from April 2022 details how, beginning in 2018, a female CIA contractor’s male colleague gave her unsolicited gifts; created a cycle of pressure and manipulation; threatened her partner; and harassed her by phone, email, and social media; in addition to pursuing unwanted contact through his brother, who also worked at the agency. Feeling she had no recourse to protect herself from her co-worker, the complainant resigned from her government contract position with the CIA and removed herself from the agency’s staff hiring process. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission once again affirmed the agency’s rejection of the complaint, because the woman had filed it 23 days past the 45-day reporting window.
In a series of events that began in 2014 and continued through the next year, a female CIA employee alleged that a male co-worker made repeated sexual advances, physically threatened her, sent her pornographic images, interfered with her employment application and security clearance, denigrated her partner, harassed her outside of work hours multiple times a week, and entered her office “uninvited and attempted to ‘airplane’ feed her pasta, which he spilled on her and then offered to clean up from the front of her shirt in an attempt to feel her breasts.”
She filed a complaint with the CIA Office of Equal Employment Opportunity in the summer of 2015. The agency claimed she did not file a timely report and dismissed her case. Yet she describes in her appeal to the commission how she contacted the deputy chief of the equal employment opportunity office multiple times, after which she was told the office would open a complaint. She alleges that a responding employee at the office then said they had “forgotten about” the complaint, demanded to meet outside the office at a Starbucks to discuss the issue further, and attempted to pressure her into signing a form claiming she did not want to file a complaint.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that the employee had in fact tried to file a complaint with the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity in a timely manner, but had been failed by the very office established to protect her. The commission ordered the CIA to reexamine her case.
Another appeal, resolved in February of last year, was filed by a branch supervisor alleging that in addition to her race and religion, she was reprimanded and discriminated against for reporting an instance of sexual assault that occurred in 2013. The appeal was ultimately rejected for the same reason as her initial complaint: “Untimely EEO contact.”
In one such case, a female operations officer alleges she was denigrated for having breast cancer, denied the insurance she needed for surgery, forced into unwarranted driving and remedial English classes, and subjected to hostile treatment from her supervisors. She filed a complaint with the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and successfully won a settlement in front of the commission. The agency appealed this finding, lost, and was forced to further compensate the employee with back pay, benefits, and ensure her supervisors underwent discrimination training.
While the CIA is currently the agency being scrutinized over how it handles sexual misconduct claims, the problem is more widespread.
The FBI, too, has come under fire for its handling of sexual misconduct. Last October, following an Associated Press report, Sen. Chuck Grassley, then ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, decried the bureau’s “rampant sexual misconduct” revealed by internal documents he obtained. At least 665 FBI employees quit the bureau between 2004 and 2020 in order to avoid punishment for sexual misconduct investigations, the documents revealed, including 45 members of the senior executive service, the bureau’s highest-ranking officials.
“This issue — of chilling women from reporting sexual harassment — is a problem across all federal agencies,” said Alden, the employment attorney. “But it is particularly bad in the context of the intelligence community, not just the CIA. These women are remarkable and brave. They deserve to be heard and their concerns investigated.”