WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate Intelligence Committee today launched an inquiry into the CIA's handling of a former employee who allegedly passed information to the Soviet Union.

''The committee feels that the apparent defection of former CIA employee Edward Howard raises serious questions about management, personnel and security procedures at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,'' said Sens. David Durenberger, R-Minn., the chairman, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the vice chairman.

According to government sources, Howard, 33, was identified by a high-level Soviet defector as having sold sensitive information on U.S. intelligence gathering in the Soviet Union to the KGB. Howard, who was forced to resign from the CIA in 1983 after failing a polygraph exam, is believed to have fled the United States while under FBI surveillance.

In a statement released by the intelligence committee, Durenberger and Leahy said the review would focus on:

-The circumstances of Howard's hiring.

-His assignments while a CIA employee.

-The reason and manner of his dismissal from the agency.

-His actions after leaving the CIA in 1983.

''We are not prejudging any aspect of the case and intend to do nothing to jeopardize or prejudge either the ongoing investigation or any subsequent adjudication that may follow,'' the two senators said.

According to an FBI affidavit, Howard was employed by the CIA from January 1981 to June 1983 and traveled in 1984 to Austria, where he met with a KGB agent and received money for ''classified information relating to U.S. intelligence sources and methods.''

Government sources said the allegation was based on information provided by Vitaly Yurchenko, a senior Soviet intelligence official who defected to the West in July.