When chemistry is cool: Ben Garrett 75G, FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Unit
BY PAIGE P. PARVIN 96G
Heat rises off the ground in shimmering waves on the sprawling grass-and-concrete grounds of Quantico, the FBI headquarters south of Washington, D.C., as military personnel perform drills and exercises in full camouflage under the blazing sun. But inside the vast, glassed-in FBI laboratory where Ben Garrett 75G works in the FBI's bioterrorism division, the air is cool and the climate crisp. Security is tight, the guard is armed, and there are gates to the lobby that require a special card.
Garrett, who has been with the bureau since 2000, is gracious and surprisingly relaxed for a guy who has spent most of his career working around biological and chemical weapons. (Asked to describe the scariest moment of his career, he quips, “Driving to work on the beltway.”) No nerdy scientist, Garrett's job ranks high on the “cool” meter: After working in the Hazardous Materials Response Unit for five years, he has just been promoted to senior-level scientist for the Weapons of Mass Destruction unit.
Underneath the bureaucratic suit, though, he is still a chemist at heart. Garrett earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Emory in the early 1970s, when the University was just beginning to rise from regional to national prominence and its chemistry graduate program was new and rapidly growing. He became of aware of Emory through an alumnus, his chemistry professor at Davidson College, where he earned his undergraduate degree. During his years at the University, Garrett saw the move from the old chemistry building to the new and watched the program's relationship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begin to flourish.
“I still encounter Emory all the time, because the CDC is a very important partner in what we do,” he says.
He also played Frisbee where the Emory Conference Center now sits; caught bats with his friends in the evenings by throwing hats into the air, which the bats mistook for bugs or other possible food; and watched the Atlanta Braves lose game after game from the $1 bleacher seats. “I don't think I ever saw them win,” Garrett says, “but it was fun.”
His chemistry courses, he says, taught him little he still applies--yet they gave him the foundation for a career in biochemistry. He says graduate school helped shape his natural scientific curiosity into keen analytical judgment.
“I use very little of what I did on a day-to-day basis in graduate school,” he says frankly. “What Emory really did for me was challenge me to prove something. [Professor] Jake Goldstein would challenge us in quantum mechanics to prove an equation, with lots of steps imbedded. I loved being challenged to pursue whether or not knowledge is true. It was a matter of growing intellectually. I remind people constantly of the need to pull apart what we see. Emory helped to cultivate that in me, and I use it every day.”
After finishing his graduate degree, Garrett did a three-year stint on active duty in the military, researching biological and chemical warfare materials at a base in Utah. He says that experience launched his career in biochemical weaponry, although the next quarter-century would see him switch sides, from producing weapons to destroying them.
Garrett has worked in a range of positions, including teaching at his alma mater , Davidson College. But for much of his career he has been under contract with the Department of Defense. In the mid-1990s, after the end of the Cold War, Garrett was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where he worked in the chemical weapons destruction support office. Personally, it was a tough time to be away--Garrett had a son starting college and a daughter in high school--but he says it was an invaluable opportunity.
“There was a window open to work with the Russians,” Garrett recalls. “I had an apartment overlooking the KGB headquarters. It was a valuable time for me, both personally and professionally. It was unsafe, but it was a wonderful time to be over there. There were a lot of misperceptions and just plain myths regarding the Soviet Union. From a work standpoint, it was delightful--we felt they were interested in receiving assistance in the destruction of weapons. I saw the U.S. government policy shift from promoting chemical weapons to renouncing all use of them. It fit my worldview that we should get rid of these weapons.”
In the late 1990s, Garrett worked as a contractor for Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, doing support work for the FBI in counterterrorism. Through this inter-agency network, he came to know the head of the Hazardous Materials Response Unit--a connection that resulted in his joining the HMRU team in 2000. Garrett coordinated scientists specializing in biological and chemical weapons to provide expertise in response to tips, or threats, from investigators in the field.
“In terms of my adult career, I am probably rare,” he says. “This is not a field people go to college to study.”
Garrett's team receives about five calls a week reporting an incident or matter requiring investigation, and the outcome can range from doing nothing to sending anywhere from three to seventy-five people, depending on the gravity of the situation. Last year, the HMRU deployed a team for about one-third of the calls it received, resulting in 117 deployments.
In many cases, the HMRU is required merely to have a presence at significant events, such as the presidential inauguration. Last year, Garrett spent more than a month in Athens to provide support to security officials at the Olympics.
At other times, the unit must respond quickly to potential security threats. For instance, Garrett was called on when officials in Anchorage discovered a large cache of sodium metal being stored in a home. When combined with water, the substance becomes explosive, so it posed a risk to the owner and possibly others. In addition, the resident was found to be shipping it illegally, probably as part of a drug trade; sodium is used in the production of crystal meth.
“Sodium metal is not a safe thing to keep around, not something a normal person would have,” Garrett recalls. “This had the potential of being a major disaster.”
But with cooperation by local authorities and the expertise of FBI investigators, the stash of sodium metal was safely collected and the homeowner apprehended--more like a scene from TV's suspense show 24 than a chemistry lab.
“No day is predictable,” Garrett says, “and no two days are alike.”