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Spies Are Just Like Us: What The NSA, FBI Thought Of 'Burn Notice'

It turns out people in the intelligence community kept tabs on "Burn Notice" and ended up liking what they saw. 

By Tyler McCarthy
Gabrielle Anwar as Fiona Glenanne, Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen in Burn Notice

After depicting the world of espionage for seven seasons, one might wonder if real-life spies were flattered by their portrayal on the USA Network original series “Burn Notice.” Well, it turns out members of the FBI and NSA did, in fact, appreciate the series and showed it the only way they knew how: through heavily redacted classified files. 

In 2015 a Freedom of Information Request was put into the FBI for any information or discussion of “Burn Notice.” It took a while for it to come out because the Beaureau and the NSA had to comb over the documents and redact sensitive information. Eventually, more than 100 pages were released to the public showing that these intelligence agencies are indeed keeping tabs on their depictions in media, with “Burn Notice” being a bit of a favorite among real-life members of these agencies. 

What did the FBI and NSA think of ‘Burn Notice’?

Again, a majority of these 108 pages are redacted to the point of being completely blank. In 2019, SpyCulture culled together all the direct references to the show that could be found and the findings were less explosive than an average episode of the hit series. However, it did show that, like many of us, NSA and FBI agents are here for Michael Westen’s antics. Most of the mentions of the show come from internal blog posts or what appear to be email conversations, so they’re not really official in tone and read more like someone’s honest review of a good series.

“I would recommend you take a look at the TV series ‘Burn Notice’ that was on for several seasons. It is about a CIA agent who has been burned and sidelined for something he didn’t do,” reads one excerpt. “He attempts to find out why, running into previous friends and frenemies from various intel organizations in many different countries. They include dastardly NSA/FBl/DOD/CIA, and everybody else, representatives tracking him. His girlfriend is an Irish IRA weapons expert and he finds himself in the midst of continuous chaos. The cast is excellent. All of the shows are both humorous and provide, more or less, technical info on how intelligence is gathered.”

It makes sense for intelligence operatives to like the show. While Westen and his friends are often steeped in the high-stakes spy world, it paints people with their skills in a pretty positive light and usually sees the good guys triumph over the bad ones. While “Burn Notice” wasn’t intended to be viewed as a workplace comedy, for the people at the FBI and NSA, it’s hard for them not to view it through that lens.

Is ‘Burn Notice’ based on a true story? 

For those unfamiliar, “Burn Notice” aired seven seasons from 2007 to 2013. It focused on a spy who was handed the titular burn notice, a term used to describe an agent who has been disavowed by their agency or country and blacklisted from working with others. With no more protection nor resources, Michael Westen finds himself back home in Miami with a target on his back and only a very unique skill set to help him survive and figure out who is behind his betrayal, all the while giving viewers tips on how to handle the situations he’s in should, however unlikely, they find themselves in the same situation. 

Since the show not only uses real spy lingo and offers real intelligence-gathering tips, one might assume it’s based on a true story. While creator Matt Nix has previously said he read countless books on the subject of spycraft and talked to real-life spies, he typically credits the bulk of Westen’s antics to consulting producer Michael Wilson. It’s unclear what Wilson’s background is but… the guy was very likely a spy like the character Westen. Nix told MovieWeb in 2007 that he was friends with Wilson and was always getting tips on spycraft from him in general conversation. Eventually, he decided to make a show about it. 

Why were the FBI and NSA talking about ‘Burn Notice’? 

Unfortunately for fans of the spy-thriller genre, it doesn’t look like there was anything nefarious going on here. It seems at worst they were keeping tabs on the portrayal of spies and tradecraft in entertainment to make sure no one was offering instructions on how to hack them, build a bomb or something like that. At best, it was just a group of people talking about a TV show they like while at work. 

Still, the interesting takeaway here is that the real-life people who do this kind of work every day found the depiction flattering, or at the very least acceptable. So, if you’re interested in spycraft, you could do a lot worse than the FBI/NSA (unofficially) approved series “Burn Notice.” 

Catch similar shows on Peacock right now. 

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