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CNN  — 

The CIA inspector general has opened an independent investigation into the agency’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault and harassment cases involving its officers, according to a senior CIA official and an official from the watchdog’s office.

The watchdog’s decision to initiate a “special review” comes as the CIA has come under growing scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault and harassment allegations and marks the beginning of a formal investigation into claims that the agency has “grossly mishandled” a number of cases.

As the IG has already begun interviewing CIA employees as part of its probe, the agency itself is also taking new steps to change the way it handles sexual assault and harassment allegations, according to a statement from Director William Burns on Thursday.

That includes hiring a new leader for its Sexual Assault and Prevention Response Office – Dr. Taleeta Jackson – who will fill what the CIA called a “critical role in improving the ways that the Agency processes and responds to sexual assault allegations.”

CIA leaders have spoken with a number of employees in recent months and through those conversations it became clear that the agency needs to change its processes, the senior CIA official said.

The senior official acknowledged that CIA did not have anyone internally with the right experience to lead its sexual assault and prevention response office so they had to look elsewhere.

Jackson, meanwhile, does appear to have that experience. She is a psychologist who previously oversaw a similar program for the Navy and has worked in victim advocacy, sexual assault response and prevention, and program development for over 18 years, Burns said in the statement.

CIA is also establishing an internal task force to help address some of the problems with its reporting structure and process, Burns added.

One short term goal for the CIA is to address how leadership communicates with its workforce about sexual assault and harassment, according to the senior CIA official.

That includes making clear to CIA employees that there are no barriers for reporting sexual assault to law enforcement, the senior official added.

“We assist officers who report concerns on how to do that,” the official said, adding that even if CIA employees go to law enforcement, which they are encouraged to do, without consulting the agency first, senior officials will still help them navigate the process.

Officers serving overseas should report any sexual assault or harassment to their local supervisor, the senior official added.

Despite the new steps announced Thursday, there are lingering questions as to why it has taken the CIA so long to address these problems, particularly when other federal agencies have made strides to do so.

And the agency now faces the investigation by its inspector general, who is tasked with conducting independent oversight of the CIA.

As part of the probe, the IG will investigate the CIA’s adherence to applicable laws and regulations to ensure a safe workplace, the official from the inspector general’s office told CNN on Thursday.

They will also examine the roles and responsibilities of agency components in preventing and responding to allegations of sexual assault and harassment, the official added.

Allegations that the CIA mishandled sexual assault and harassment cases has also caught the attention of Congress.

The Senate Intelligence Committee requested an investigation by the OIG after it was notified “of a number of allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment … that are alleged to have been grossly mishandled by the CIA.”

“We respectfully request that you examine and investigate the roles and responsibilities of all Agency components in preventing – and responding to allegations of – sexual assault or harassment among Agency personnel,” a letter sent to the IG by the panel said.

“We further request that you consider the extent to which the law or Agency regulations, guidance, protocols, or practice present obstacles to the administration of justice under the law or in Agency personnel decisions and make recommended changes that would remove any identified barriers to achieving just results in cases of sexual assault or sexual harassment,” it added.

The House Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, has said it is conducting its own investigation into the CIA’s handling of sexual assault and harassment cases.

CNN previously reported that the House panel has heard from multiple female CIA employees since the beginning of this year and told lawmakers the agency is discouraging women from filing sexual misconduct complaints.