FAIRFAX, Va. -- A CIA officer trainee has been convicted in Virginia of attacking a female colleague with a scarf and kissing her inside a stairwell at the agency's headquarters in Langley. The unusual case has sparked a legal reckoning within CIA in which two dozen women have come forward in recent months to report sexual misconduct to Congress.
The women have all come with their own complaints of abusive treatment within the CIA, telling authorities and Congress not only about sexual assaults, unwanted touching and coercion but of what they contend is a campaign by the spy agency to keep them from speaking out, with dire warnings it could wreck their careers and even endanger national security.
"There are harassers everywhere and bosses that try to cover them up," said Kristin Alden, a Washington attorney who represents some of the women who have filed complaints. "But the whole nature of intelligence work -- the culture of secrecy and people working under assumed names -- really elevates the chilling effect of retaliation and isolation that victims feel."
Details of Ashkan Bayatpour's July 13, 2022, stairwell attack have not been previously reported but were confirmed by The Associated Press through court records and by several people familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The 39-year-old Alabama native and former U.S. Navy intelligence officer has remained on the job for more than a year since the woman reported the assault to the CIA and nine months since she reported it to the FBI and local law enforcement.
Several of the woman's female co-workers attended Wednesday's proceedings, becoming emotional after Fairfax General District Court Judge Dipti Pidikiti-Smith found Bayatpour guilty, sentenced him to six months' probation and ordered him to surrender any firearms and stay away from the woman. His attorney has appealed.
The CIA declined to say whether Bayatpour has faced internal discipline, saying it does not comment on whether individuals are affiliated with the agency.
"This guilty verdict came despite and not because of the CIA," said Kevin Carroll, the attorney for Bayatpour's accuser. The AP does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse or domestic violence.
"It is a gigantic problem that the agency has not yet begun to get its arms around," he added. "It's an environment where a lot of stuff is secret, and that attracts some bad actors."
Complaints to the CIA's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity about sexual harassment and discrimination this year have already doubled last year's total, detailing 76 separate incidents.
The top Democrat and Republican overseeing the CIA, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have called for a watchdog investigation and are considering hearings into why the agency has failed women in their ranks for so long. Since 2018, out of 290 total employment-related complaints, the agency has substantiated just a single case based on sex.
The congressional scrutiny prompted CIA Director William Burns in May to launch a series of reforms to streamline claims, support victims and more quickly discipline those behind misconduct. That includes hiring a psychologist steeped in victim advocacy to lead the agency's fledgling Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and replacing the leadership of the CIA office where many of the women say they were discouraged from making complaints.
"Our officers deserve no less than our laser sharp focus on ensuring they have a safe and secure work environment," said CIA spokeswoman Tammy Kupperman Thorp.
Congressional aides told the AP they have interviewed or had contact with at least two dozen women CIA employees this year. They described misconduct ranging from lewd remarks about sexual fantasies at after-work happy hours to a case in which a senior manager showed up at a subordinate's house at night with a firearm demanding sex. Some of the incidents go back years and took place as officers were on risky covert missions overseas, while others took place at CIA headquarters.
Washington attorney Kevin Byrnes said many of his clients were told they could not identify their attackers, go to law enforcement or even speak to family members about their claims due to national security concerns or the risk of divulging unspecified classified information.
"The CIA apparently believes that it is not subject to federal law," Byrnes said.
Information for this article was contributed by Randy Herschaft and Tara Copp of The Associated Press.