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Victim who claims she was sexually assaulted at CIA headquarters sues spy agency accusing it of intimidation

<i>Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency is seen at CIA Headquarters in Langley
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency is seen at CIA Headquarters in Langley

By Katie Bo Lillis, CNN

(CNN) — An unnamed female CIA trainee who claims she was sexually assaulted in a stairwell at CIA headquarters in 2022 is suing the agency, claiming that the CIA “repeatedly and improperly” discouraged her from lodging a criminal complaint against her assailant and attempted to intimidate her from testifying at his trial. 

The suit specifically claims that the agency improperly shared the victim’s internal workplace instant messages with her assailant’s criminal defense team, which the victim claims were intended to falsely portray her as having an extramarital affair. 

The IMs were not provided to the court as a result of a court-ordered subpoena or a request from law enforcement, according to the suit, and the victim now argues that their provision was in violation of her Privacy Act rights and represent an attempt by the CIA to prevent the conviction of her assailant by intimidating her from testifying. 

Her assailant was convicted of assault and battery by the Fairfax County General District Court in August in a groundbreaking decision that pried open the tightly closed doors of the nation’s largest spy agency. 

The suit comes as the CIA continues to face scrutiny on Capitol Hill over its handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. The CIA inspector general in May initiated a “special review” after a number of women told congressional intelligence committees that their allegations of sexual misconduct were “grossly mishandled.”

The lawsuit provides some of the first publicly-available details about the allegations that victims have made on Capitol Hill and within the CIA about how the agency has addressed reports of sexual assault. 

The suit names Director Bill Burns, whom the suit claims was briefed on the assault in the stairwell weeks after it occurred. 

A CIA spokesman declined to discuss the specifics of the case, citing ongoing litigation.  “CIA protects the privacy of our officers and acts in accordance with the law.”

More broadly, CIA “continues to take concerns about our handling of employee allegations of sexual assault and harassment extremely seriously, and we have already taken significant steps in this regard,” the spokesman said. 

 “We are focused on instilling in all officers a culture of duty to act, and ensuring they know they are encouraged to report any incidents of sexual assault to law enforcement authorities.  We have also strengthened our response, including making significant organizational reforms and bringing on an experienced outside expert to lead our sexual assault and prevention efforts.”

‘You Good?’

At issue in the victim’s suit is not the assault itself – for which the assailant was convicted – but the CIA’s handling of the victim’s initial report and efforts to seek justice.

According to the suit filed Tuesday in Washington, DC, in 2022, a male CIA trainee “snuck up behind” the female officer – who is hearing impaired –  in a stairwell, “wrapped a scarf tightly around her neck, began strangling her with it, made lewd remarks, and tried to kiss her forcibly on her mouth.” 

The female officer told her assailant to “stop” and fled.

 “He immediately tried unsuccessfully to wrap the scarf around Plaintiff’s neck again, followed Plaintiff to her office, and grabbed and forcibly kissed her,” the suit alleges. “Hours after the attack, her assailant twice texted Plaintiff to ask, ‘You good?’”

According to the suit, he had earlier sent her a series of “obscene workplace IMs.”

Both were Clandestine Service trainees who were learning to recruit and handle CIA assets – spies. Their names have been publicly withheld in court proceedings as a result.

A lawyer for the assailant, who is appealing, did not respond to multiple emails from CNN. According to transcripts of the criminal proceedings obtained by CNN, the lawyer during the assailant’s criminal trial in August acknowledged that his client wrapped the scarf around the woman in the stairwell but insisted his actions were “a joke that maybe was misunderstood or didn’t land the way it was intended.”

Instant messages

The suit lays out a series of alleged episodes in which the victim says the CIA discouraged her from reporting the attack and then retaliated against her for doing so.

But it was the CIA’s sharing of the victim’s internal instant messages that gave her cause for legal action, her attorney Kevin Carroll told CNN on Wednesday. 

According to Carroll and the suit, during the assailant’s trial in August, his defense attorneys informed Carroll that the CIA had provided them with a selection of IMs between the victim and another colleague that appeared to show the victim, who is married, complaining about being “sore after sex” with that colleague. According to the suit, the messages had been “selectively edited” and the victim was in fact complaining about being sore after a workout. 

“John Doe or a colleague, Richard Roe, accessed Plaintiff’s IMs, printed her records from a top-secret computer system, and provided copies of these IMs to Plaintiff’s assailant’s defense team only after selectively editing Plaintiff’s IMs to make them appear salacious: they are neither a complete record of the individuals’ workplace correspondence, nor in any way relevant to Plaintiff’s complaint,” the suit reads. 

“The threat to introduce IMs embarrassing to Plaintiff is what is known colloquially as ‘slut shaming’—an effort to undermine a valid claim of sexual assault by alleging that the complainant’s purported consensual sex with others mitigates her assailant’s nonconsensual acts,” the suit claims.

Carroll said neither he nor the victim have copies of the IMs. The judge in the assailant’s case did not admit them into evidence, according to Carroll. 

Other allegations

In July 2022, just over a week after the assault, the suit claims that the CIA “advised [the victim] not to contact law enforcement. 

“[I]f you choose to proceed [engaging with law enforcement] then any investigation [CIA is] conducting will come to a complete stop,” the suit quotes a “CIA representative” as telling the victim. “They do not do concurrent investigations, and will have to wait to take any administrative actions, including disciplinary measures, until the police conclude theirs. It is a difficult choice I am sure. Perhaps wait out the findings of the [Security] portion, and then determine how you wish to proceed.”

By August 2022, according to the suit, the CIA’s office of security, charged with the internal investigation of the matter, “determined inaccurately that Plaintiff’s assailant had committed no crime” and closed its investigation in September. 

Later that month, the suit claims, the agency “ordered [the victim] not to discuss her assault with anyone and threatened her that doing so ‘may violate federal law.’”

The victim eventually reported the assault to the FBI and Fairfax County, Virginia, police in December. The suit claims that CIA’s counsel “unlawfully advised Plaintiff that she must not truthfully answer any of law enforcement’s questions about purportedly classified matters without advance permission from the Agency” and “specifically ordered Plaintiff to protect the secret of her and her assailant’s affiliation with the Agency.”

According to the suit, the victim engaged in a number of written exchanges with the office of security as well as the agency’s general counsel, about her desire to report the assault to law enforcement. The CIA argues that “the bulk of this internal correspondence is classified,” according to the suit. 

In January 2023, the victim claims that the CIA warned her she faced unspecified “consequences” if she spoke to congressional oversight committees after receiving whistleblower protection status. 

In August, during a recess in the assailant’s criminal trial, the suit alleges that a member of the agency’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) “pulled Plaintiff out of an ongoing training session, part of her regular employment duties at that time, to tell her that the Associated Press was in the process of deciding ‘at the highest levels’ whether to publish her name in relation to the criminal case against her assailant, an event that would effectively end her Agency career.”

The suit claims that the AP had “repeatedly reassured” the public affairs office that it would not publish the victim’s name. 

“OPA could not have been confused on this basic point,” the suit alleges. “The unnecessary interruption of [the vicim’s]’s intensive training with OPA’s false statement caused her considerable distress before the AP confirmed the falsity of OPA’s statement, and reassured [the victim].”

A representative for the AP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The suit also claims that the victim’s performance reviews were downgraded based on her decision to appear before the House Intelligence Committee to discuss her assault. Her training supervisor also allegedly “chastised [the victim] verbally and in writing for allegedly interjecting her ‘personal information’ into the Agency’s training environment.”

CIA response

The CIA insists it has a “laser sharp focus on ensuring [officers] have a safe and secure work environment.”

In 2021, a CIA officer said the agency established an office to respond to sexual assault allegations and in May, hired Dr. Taleeta Jackson, a psychologist who previously oversaw a similar program for the Navy, to run the program.

According to the officer, Jackson is “developing a tailored training curriculum for Agency employees and is ensuring her office is fully resourced with trained officers to provide support to victims and respond to incidents of sexual assault within our Agency community.”

The agency has also created a “Resolution Office,” reporting to the Chief Operating Officer, that “will serve as the Agency’s focal point for harassment, misconduct, and grievance resolution processes” and “ensure that specially trained officers are empowered to identify best options to resolve issues, with a focus on fairness, transparency, and timeliness,” according to the officer.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify that the unnamed female CIA trainee is claiming that the attack in the stairwell was sexual assault.

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