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Judge: Secret Told to 'Zero Dark Thirty' Filmmakers Won't Be Shared

Just because Kathryn Bigelow knows something, that doesn't mean the information is "truly public."

On the Set: "Zero Dark Thirty"
Rajnish Katyal/Hindustan Times/Newscom
Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow didn't put everything she knew about the hunt for Osama bin Laden into Zero Dark Thirty.

During preparation for the film, she met with government officials and was told the full name of the U.S. Navy SEAL involved in the planning of the raid that captured bin Laden, as well as the first names of C.I.A. officers.

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Judicial Watch wanted the information, too, and submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The watchdog group has spent years pursuing information about the access that Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers got and has scored some successes in ferreting out documents. Some of the information that was turned over had redactions, though, and so the subject of follow-up litigation in D.C. federal court was whether it was proper to redact the name of the SEAL. If Bigelow knew, doesn't that make it part of the public domain?

No, said a judge on Wednesday, Aug. 28.

It was argued that when government officials told the people behind the film the names, it was with "no strings attached," meaning that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal could have shared the names in the movie or elsewhere without consequence.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras writes in a ruling, "Even if that description of the disclosures were accurate (and it may not be: when Under Secretary Vickers mentioned the Navy SEAL, he emphasized that 'the only thing we ask is that you not reveal his name in any way,')...it would not be enough to establish waiver [of an exemption to FOIA] in this circuit."

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What matters, the judge adds, is whether the information is "truly public," whether "it has and remains in the public domain."

Judge Contreras then briefly imagines the scenario of the filmmakers publicizing the names.

"This would be a much harder case, one that might turn on the question of whether those names had been 'officially acknowledged,' " he writes.

(Of course, if it wasn't a secret, Judicial Watch wouldn't be pushing to uncover it.)

The watchdog group also tried the argument that because the government had made the disclosure to the Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers to assist in production -- not for "an important government purpose," as the judge puts it -- it was put into the public domain for that reason. The judge rejects the proposition that purpose matters.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner