USA v. USA Network: When they watch Burn Notice, the terrorists win.

USA v. USA Network: When they watch Burn Notice, the terrorists win.

A recent Supreme Court decision suggests that the USA Network show Burn Notice is providing “material assistance” to terrorists.

On June 21, 2010, in the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the United States Supreme Court upheld Section 6603 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 in a 6-3 decision.  Section 6603, an amendment to an amendment of the PATRIOT Act, makes it illegal to provide “material assistance” to terrorist organizations, and defines “material assistance” to include, among other things, “expert advice or assistance.”   Free speech advocates and the lawyers for Humanitarian Law Project argue that “expert advice” constitutes speech and that this definition therefore violates the First Amendment. I’m inclined to agree, but 2/3 of the Supreme Court told us to shut up or face prosecution.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia responds to the defendent's Free Speech argument.

But so far, we’re not the ones who have to worry.  It’s the USA Network and the guys who make the show Burn Notice who are really in trouble.

Burn Notice, currently in its fourth season, is the story of Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a former covert intelligence agent who has been forced out of his job (“burned”) and forced to live in Miami.  Like the A-Team before him, he uses the skills he learned from Uncle Sam to help the helpless in Miami stand up to a variety of murderers, gangster, spies, drug dealers, biker gangs, etc.

Michael is assisted by two sidekicks: Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) is a former Special Forces operative with extensive connections in Miami’s law enforcement community, and Fiona Glennanne (Gabrielle Anwar) is a former hit-person/explosives expert/general badass for the Irish Republican Army and Michael’s sometime girlfriend.

The show’s overarching plot is about Michael’s attempts to get his old job back by finding out who burned him and why, but the joy of the show is in the team’s application of spy-craft and well-trained violence to the criminal underclass of Miami.  Often going undercover, Michael generally works to get the bad guys to make mistakes that will either get them arrested by the authorities or killed by some other bad guy, getting the client of the week out of a jam.

The last few episodes are on Hulu, so take a look, especially if you’re at work right now.  It’s a light and implausible show – a modern cross between the A-Team and MacGyver with a lot of establishing shots of girls in bikinis – but it’s one of the most entertaining things on summer TV.

Or it was.

Consider this:

Namibia: No extradition treaty with the US and great swimming on the Skeleton Coast.

The Supreme Court just upheld the conviction of the Humanitarian Law Project for offering “material assistance” to terrorists in the form of “expert assistance.”   What was HLP doing?  They were working with the Kurdish People’s Party, a group seeking to set up a separate Kurdish state in eastern Turkey, to teach this group how to achieve its goals through non-violence by engaging with the United Nations.

In the court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts argues that teaching this group non-violent ways of achieving its goals is a crime because “Such support frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends.”

If making the means of non-violent protest available is now enough to convict HLP of a crime, then Jeffrey Donovan and the producers of Burn Notice better start filming in a country without an extradition treaty.

Throughout each episode of Burn Notice, Donovan’s voiceover offers how-to’s on whatever particular spy-technique he’s using at the moment.  These deadpan bon-mots are the single best part of the show and offer all sorts of helpful advice.  They’re so popular that they’re used as promos for the show.  There’s only one good one on YouTube, but you can see the others here.  I recommend the ones on Turkmenistan and brake failure.

That one may seem relatively benign, but check out some of these others pieces of advice from Mr. Westen:

“When you’re being watched, what you need is contrast. A background that will make the surveillance stand out. An FBI field office is full of guys in their forties. At most South Beach business hotels, it would be tough to tell which middle-aged white guy was watching you. So you stay in the place where everyone is a Jell-O shot away from alcohol poisoning. If you see someone who can walk a straight line, that’s the Fed.”


“Freon is available at most computer stores. Buy a can of screen duster, turn it upside-down, and you’ve got it in liquid form. It’s cold enough to crystallize the metal in many commercial locks. A hammer can take care of the rest.”


“Need to go someplace you’re not wanted? Any uniform store will sell you a messenger outfit, and any messenger can get past a security desk.”


“With everyone X-raying and chemical testing their mail these days, a box of wire and pipe and batteries sprinkled with chemical fertilizer is a great attention-getter.”


“Military firebombs are typically white phosphorus or chlorine trifluoride. These are remarkably effective, but they are also unstable, lethally toxic, and hard to find at the grocery store. The main ingredient in a homemade firebomb, on the other hand, is Styrofoam.”


“The sticky bomb was originally developed in World War II for mining tanks. For the homemade variety, tile adhesive works best – sticky, water-proof, and it comes in an easily portable plastic bucket.”


“The longer you run from the police, the more certain you are to get caught. There’s a small window of time after a chase begins, before backup arrives, before helicopters are deployed. If you want any chance of getting away, you’d best use this time to find some place secluded… and bail out.”

There are dozens more.

The first seven chapters (of 200+) of the Anarchist Cookbook are 1. Counterfeiting Money 2. Credit Card Fraud 3. Making Plastic Explosives 4. Picking Master Locks 5. The Arts of Lockpicking I 6. The Arts of Lockpicking II 7. Solidox Bombs

Basically, the whole show is a TV adaptation of the Anarchists Cookbook, the how-to manual for all sorts of nastiness that many of us bought when we were 13 year-old-boys and fully expected to be badass action heroes in the near future.

Every Thursday night for the last four years, the USA Network has offered explicit expert advice to everyone, making the secrets of American spy-craft available to our nation’s closest friends, its most sedentary citizens, and its bitterest foes.

Terrorist cells with access to basic cable, Hulu, or one of those illegal download sites (the ones that so strongly discourages) have now learned how to:  recognize and avoid FBI surveillance, break through locks, get past security desks, build firebombs, stick them to things, and escape from the police.  Burn Notice has planned an entire operation for them.  Moreover, the show even implicitly endorses the use of terror tactics, making one of its main sympathetic characters, Fiona, a former bomb-maker for the IRA (which, though not on America’s list of terrorist organizations, is still on the UK list).

And lest you think this is silly, that the bad guys aren’t watching and learning from TV, allow me to share a brief anecdote.  In 2007, I was living in Las Vegas in a big group house.  One night, we got home to realize that the house had been burglarized and that my roommate’s car had been stolen.  The LVPD doesn’t usually send the CSI guys for a burglary, but when the police subsequently found the car a few blocks away, on fire, the crime became arson and the CSI truck showed up.  It turned out that the guy they sent had been one of the advisors to Anthony Zuiker when Zuiker first started reaserching on the first CSI show.  As he dusted every surface in the five bedroom house (that dust is really, really hard to clean up, btw), he expressed regret that the show he helped create was making it much harder to do his job, as now every criminal knows what the CSI guys look for and knows, for example, that wearing gloves while committing crimes is probably a good idea.

It wasn’t just this one guy – recent studies have shown that this is a serious problem.

So believe me, the bad guys are watching Burn Notice and they’re learning.  According to the reasoning of the Supreme Court, the USA Network is clearly in violation of the law for providing “material assistance” to terrorist organizations.

US Department of Justice, send those bastards to Gitmo.

Michael and Fiona await sentencing at an undisclosed location.

PS: In putting this post together tonight, I’ve Googled “terrorist,” “terrorist organizations,” “anarchists cookbook,” “PATRIOT Act,” “IRA,” “Kurdish People’s Party,” and “countries without extradition treaties.”  I’ve also clicked on links for white phosphorus and chlorine triflouride.

I’d like to welcome to the National Security Agency staffer who is now assigned to subject me to a level of scrutiny I probably don’t deserve.  Thank you for your service to our country. We hope you enjoy the site.

11 Comments on “USA v. USA Network: When they watch Burn Notice, the terrorists win.”

  1. Martin #

    It’s news like this that makes me grateful I live in the UK, the country with the best privacy laws and individual rights ever.


  2. Nona #

    This reminds me of a breakroom conversation many years ago with a coworker who was convinced that books with dangerous information like how to build bombs should be restricted. Asking if we should therefore restrict books on engineering, physics and chemistry as well wasn’t enough to shake him off. It ended up in even more ridiculous territory when I pushed him to admit that he felt guns should be more accessible than books.


  3. Tom P #

    Free speech advocates and the lawyers for Humanitarian Law Project argue that “expert advice” constitutes speech and that this definition therefore violates the First Amendment. I’m inclined to agree, but 2/3 of the Supreme Court told us to shut up or face prosecution.

    Pretty sure this a somewhat straightforward example of failing the “imminent lawless action” test. Or, failing that, “prior restraint” test. Take your pick.


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Great article, McNeil. It made me giggle. Yes, giggle.

    I can’t find it now, but I’m positive I read an interview with Matt Nix (the creator of Burn Notice) where he said the writers purposely leave out important steps when they show Fiona making bombs and other similarly dangerous things. I haven’t tried the “upside-down screen duster destroys padlocks” trick yet, but I wonder if there’s another step in there to make it work. Then again, padlocks are pretty easy to break…


  5. stokes #

    So if I can be a total underthinking fanboy for a minute: what do people think about the new guy on Burn Notice? Neat way to shake up the group dynamic, or just Cousin Oliver with an assault rifle?


  6. mlawski OTI Staff #

    I like the new guy. Don’t love him. Like him. Yes, it’s a nice way to shake things up.

    Sadly, I haven’t been all enamored with this season. The season-long arc I couldn’t keep track of, the emotional beats felt off, and the cases-of-the-week weren’t holding my interest like they used to. But then came tonight’s episode. How frigging sweet was that, people?! If the fun, suspenseful plot and witty one-liners weren’t enough, the episode also taught me how to blow up a floor safe with a toaster.

    I refuse to call this an “underthinking it” comment. It’s an “overfeeling it” comment.


  7. El Acordeonachi #

    Hoo hahahaha! mcneil, you win for your last paragraph alone. For years, my brother and I, when talking about current events in ways that some on the right might think as…dangerous? Subversive? Bah. Anyway, we make sure to say hi to the poor schlub working at ESCHELON being forced to listen to our inane conversations. As a joke of course. Of course, that was before the whole illegal wiretap snafu happened.


  8. stabbim #

    I have no problem with the new guy as such, but I am annoyed that Michael Westen has been busted down to a supporting character on his own show this season. Thing is, this latest episode dropped some hints that Westen is getting annoyed by it too, so hopefully that will conjure up some good drama (and meta-drama) as we go forward.

    And hey, don’t be dissin’ Cousin Oliver…or at least not the dude who played him. :)


  9. Harold #

    So I opened a page with “terrorist,” “terrorist organizations,” “anarchists cookbook,” “PATRIOT Act,” “IRA,” “Kurdish People’s Party,” and “countries without extradition treaties.” AND copied and pasted it. Now I need to check for wiretaps!

    BTW, burn notice is the best show on Basic Cable, and the best spy on TV since La Femme Nikita’s Peta Wilson.


  10. Megan from Lombard #

    mlawski is right. Donovan recently did a spot on ‘the View’ (I only found out because of my sister, I swear. Those biddies annoy me to no end.) for the show and he said that they do leave out a number of important steps and key ingredients when making the bombs.

    Also I read that when they blow up a building for the show (which seems to be once an episode) on location they use real explosives. How’s that for Urban Renewal?


  11. Joshua Brown #

    Burn Notice is one hell of a great tv series, i love spy movies and tv series like this one..`.


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