WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency announced on Thursday that it would overhaul its process for handling sexual assault and harassment accusations in the wake of allegations that the agency had discouraged people from filing formal complaints or had mishandled them.
Members of Congress have begun investigating the agency’s handling of assault and harassment complaints filed by female C.I.A. officers. Also, at the request of the Senate, the C.I.A.’s inspector general has begun a review of how the organization processed complaints, officials said.
Lawyers for the women say the C.I.A. has used arguments about classification to make it difficult for women to get legal representation. The agency has also created roadblocks that have made it difficult for people to file federal complaints or get outside law enforcement to investigate the issues, according to the lawyers.
On Thursday, the C.I.A. announced that it had hired Taleeta Jackson from the Navy’s sexual assault prevention program to lead the agency’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Dr. Jackson will be tasked with improving how the C.I.A. responds to sexual assault allegations, the agency said in a statement.
The C.I.A. also said it would create an internal task force advised by outside experts to streamline its process for addressing sexual assault and harassment. By the end of May, the agency will issue new guidance on reporting such episodes, the C.I.A. said. Officials said the aim is to make it easier to report misconduct internally or to outside law enforcement.
In a statement, William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, said he had met with “affected officers” to listen to their concerns and see how the agency could improve.
“We have no higher priority than taking care of our people,” Mr. Burns said. “We will continue to act quickly and systematically to address concerns, and to improve our approach to these critical issues. More reforms will be coming.”
The C.I.A.’s statement on Thursday acknowledged that the previous process for handling accusations was flawed and suggested that it was too difficult for officers to get help or legal guidance. But it is not clear if the agency will re-examine any prior cases as part of the review of its procedures.
Kevin T. Carroll, a lawyer who represents one woman who has made a criminal complaint against another C.I.A. officer, said the task force was “an excellent first step.”
But he said the C.I.A. must overhaul how it handles criminal complaints, which law enforcement agency handles them and what it allows victims to tell investigators.
The C.I.A. “must also reform its instructions to victims about speaking to law enforcement,” Mr. Carroll said.
Mr. Carroll said that when his client was frustrated by the agency’s failure to act, she approached the House Intelligence Committee in January. Congress’s intelligence committees oversee the C.I.A., and its staff members have security clearances, allowing them to demand information from the agency.
The problems with the C.I.A.’s handling of assault allegations were reported earlier by Politico.
In other cases, the agency has also discouraged people from filing complaints under the equal employment opportunity process, making it difficult for women to get compensation for workplace harassment or assault, said Kevin Byrnes, a lawyer who represents seven agency officers.
Under federal law, workplace harassment complaints must first be heard by the agency before moving to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While individual agencies are supposed to appoint a neutral arbiter to look into complaints, Mr. Byrnes said the C.I.A. had not done that.
“Sexual harassment is not classified,” Mr. Byrnes said. “Sexual assault is not classified.”
In addition to his seven clients, Mr. Byrnes said 18 other people had contacted him about episodes that had occurred, but too much time had passed for them to file a complaint under federal procedures. He said the agency is still defending its handling of equal employment opportunity complaints.
“I am glad there is a blue-ribbon commission, but let us see what happens,” Mr. Byrnes said.