WASHINGTON — The CIA has removed its station chief in Algeria from his post amid an investigation by the Justice Department of allegations that the officer drugged and raped two Algerian women, according to current and former U.S. government officials familiar with the matter.
The officer, identified in an affidavit as Andrew Warren, served as the agency's top official in Algeria until late last year, and previously held high-level positions in Afghanistan and Egypt, officials said. The investigation was launched after two women approached the U.S. Embassy in Algiers and said they had been raped in separate incidents, according to a former CIA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Justice Department officials declined to comment, although the State Department confirmed that an investigation was underway.
"The individual in question has returned to Washington and the U.S. government is looking into the matter," said acting State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood.
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations, except to say that the "CIA would take seriously, and follow up vigorously, any allegation of misconduct." The investigation was first reported by ABC News on its website.
The allegations have the potential to represent a serious setback for the U.S. as the Obama administration is trying to repair relations with the Muslim world.
Algeria is considered a top priority in the intelligence community because it has been a haven for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group that has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. The North African group was blamed for an August bombing outside Algiers that killed more than 40 people.
The timing of the case means that Obama's picks to run the intelligence community and the CIA face a budding controversy even before stepping into their jobs.
Retired U.S. Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday as the next director of national intelligence. Former Rep. Leon E. Panetta of California faces a confirmation hearing next week on his nomination to lead the CIA.
A spokesman for the office of the director of national intelligence declined to comment, but a source close to the Obama intelligence team said both nominees had been briefed on the matter.
Warren was described as a highly gifted officer, a convert to Islam who demonstrated a rare ability to blend in among Muslim communities across several countries.
"He is exactly the guy we need out in the field," said a senior U.S. government official who had met with the accused officer in Algiers last summer before the scandal emerged. "He's African American. He's Muslim. He speaks the language. He seemed well put together, sharp and experienced."
A former CIA official who worked with Warren said he had "done great works in the mosques" in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion of 2001. "He was able to go into the mosque for Friday prayers, could recite the Koran, and wasn't afraid to mix it up," the former official said.
"It's so disappointing because he's someone who had so much potential," the former official said. "This is a guy who everybody likes, and everyone wants to see him get ahead."
Warren had joined the CIA before the Sept. 11 attacks, officials said, but quit the agency midway through his first overseas assignment. He went to work in the financial sector in Manhattan, and rejoined the CIA after witnessing the World Trade Center towers collapse.
"People who have talked to him say he has denied" the assault allegations, said the former CIA official. In an affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and posted on the ABC News website, investigators provided detailed accounts of the two women's accusations.
Neither woman was named in the document. Both said they were raped at Warren's residence after becoming ill upon consuming drinks he prepared out of their view. The first incident occurred in September 2007, according to the affidavit, and the second in February 2008.
The affidavit said that in an interview in Washington, Warren said "he had engaged in consensual sexual intercourse" with the women. It also said that a search of his personal electronics and Washington hotel room uncovered "multiple photographs" of the women, as well as a handbook on investigating sexual assaults.
A senior GOP congressional aide said the Senate Intelligence Committee was looking into the matter, and that it was not clear whether the case had jeopardized any U.S. intelligence operations.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA came under intense pressure to expand its clandestine service and recruit officers with the ethnic backgrounds and language skills to help penetrate organizations such as Al Qaeda. Congressional officials said the latest allegations may lead to increased scrutiny of the agency's hiring and screening practices.
Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this report.