From FBI special agent to vintage motorcycle enthusiast and pilot – what can’t Nathan Garrett do?
Every American over the age of 20 can probably remember what they were doing when they first heard about the 9/11 attacks. Nathan Garrett is no different.
If you remember those events, you can also remember what your first thoughts were when news broke that terrorists had flown the first of two commercial airliners into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Nathan Garrett is no different.
For some of us, those thoughts revolved around bewilderment, fear and the desire to crawl into a hole and hope the whole situation went away. In that regard, Nathan Garrett is quite different. He was a speical agent in the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division in 2001.
“I was being ‘called up,’” he recalls. “It was a tragedy for the country, but this was an opportunity to help my country and be a part of something bigger than me. That was a call that was shared by the people around me. It is hard to describe what is summoned from inside one who is called into that type of work. It was exciting to be a part of the direction the country would ultimately go. Sept. 11 would be the day and the moment when my life really changed. It was on.”
Garrett had been working with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Dallas in the late 1990s, which was investigating some of the nation’s marquee cases in counterterrorism. He says there were only a handful of agents and offices involved on a proactive criminal level prior to 9/11; so when the terrorist attacks occurred, the agents already had some noteworthy success in the Dallas office. “We got busy with all of this in 2000 and 2001,” he says, “and then the world changed.”
Garrett was in his Dallas office on that fateful Tuesday morning when colleagues ran in with the news. “We knew that the Twin Towers had been the target of attacks previously and the value that they represented to the terrorist world,” he says. “I immediately jumped up and went into my supervisor’s office where we gathered around the televisions and watched it happen. We all looked at each other like, ‘What have we done?’
“Given the proximity of time and significance of our proactive criminal actions, you couldn’t help but think that our investigations had caused this to happen,” Garrett continues. “It wasn’t long before we knew that this was something bigger than us, but we also believed that we had some meaningful connections in our investigation. We knew that our knowledge was going to be a benefit moving forward. I remember sprinting back to my office, my life changing and my work beginning.”
Garrett grew up in the small southern Missouri town of West Plains. As the son of an attorney who later became a judge, he was often surrounded by law enforcement. He worked in the field during the summers and was a state trooper after graduating from Cornell College in Iowa. He went to law school at the University of Tulsa, then returned to West Plains and became a prosecutor. He switched back and forth between law enforcement and law practice for a while until he joined the FBI.
“At that time, I was Special Assistant U.S. Attorney and an agent for the FBI, and I was working directly with the leadership of the Department of Justice,” he says. “That put a strain on my obligations to the very traditional, rule- and command-laden organization (the FBI), so I found myself in a bit of a pinch trying to serve two masters. I worked with the Department of Justice at a direction and leadership level, while still being subject to the traditional confines of the FBI.
“That’s not to say anything bad about the FBI,” Garrett stresses. “I have a tremendous affection and love for the organization. It is necessarily an organization of rules and has a firm command structure. But the days and months that followed the events of 9/11 required a tremendous amount of flexibility in everyone’s role.”
In 2007, after Garrett completed the prosecution of the largest terrorist financing trial in U.S. history, he was approached by Todd Graves, the former U.S. Attorney for Western Missouri. Graves asked him to consider joining him in a private law practice. Garrett and Graves had an existing relationship based on their work together over the past two years, which gave them confidence that they would work well together. This also gave Garrett an opportunity to move his family back to his home state. He and Graves co-founded the Kansas City-based firm Graves Garrett LLC.
Garrett now represents individuals and companies that find themselves in crisis and says he’s always wanted to be a part of high-risk litigation. He admits it hasn’t always been the healthiest choice, but it’s where he feels his talents are best utilized. “People point to all the things I’ve done and think I’m bored with this current role, but that’s not the case,” Garrett says. “I get to make things better in people’s lives. That spirit hasn’t been diminished.”
It’s not that the jet-setting, risk-taking, edge-cutting Garrett has crawled into the hole that most of us wanted to find in the moments after 9/11. He has plenty of interesting hobbies. He has an impressive collection of antique Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He shares an assemblage of antique guns with his father, who once told him, “Stop building a resume and get a job.” And he still travels extensively helping clients across the country. He does so on his own plane, which he flies himself.
“There are a lot of things I have in my life, but spare time is not among them,” Garrett says with a chuckle. “But I felt like I could fit in learning to fly. I looked at it as an opportunity for self-betterment. It requires great skill, discipline and dedication to a task. It’s an entirely new adventure for me, but it’s entirely consistent with my crazy past.
“I use it as a business tool, but what it is as much as anything is an escape for me,” he continues. “Doing what I do, there’s a lot of pressure in my life. That can wear on anybody. My mind races on those problems all the time. I don’t have a switch that I can turn on and off. What’s interesting to me is that the activity that’s required to fly a plane allows me to completely dismiss all the noise of the problems that I try to manage.”
Yes, Nathan Garrett is plenty different from the rest of us.
Story by David Smale | Photos by Ryan Nicholson