U.S. officials are treating a cyberattack on Sony Pictures as a "serious national security matter," with the National Security Council considering a proportionate response, the White House said Thursday.
Evidence shows the attack against Sony was carried out by a "sophisticated actor," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. But he declined to blame North Korea, saying the investigation is still progressing.
That country is suspected of orchestrating the hack in retaliation for the Sony film "The Interview," about a fictional plot to assassinate Pyongyang’s leader, Kim Jong Un. The company on Wednesday cancelled the film’s scheduled December 25 release after the four largest U.S. theater chains said they would not show it. A spokesman said Sony "has no further release plans" for the $44 million comedy, The New York Times reported.
According to media reports, U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said investigators have connected North Korea to the cyberattack. It is not clear how investigators made the determination.
The massive breach resulted in the leak of tens of thousands of documents and has escalated to threats of terrorist attacks over the film.
A hacker group calling itself Guardians of Peace promised a "bitter fate" to those who attend "The Interview" showings. The group – invoking the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States – warned people to stay away from theaters where the film is playing.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says "there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters."
President Barack Obama also downplayed the threat, saying his "recommendation would be that people go to the movies."
State Department denial
The film portrays Seth Rogen and James Franco as frustrated television journalists who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean leader. In the film's climactic scene, Kim Jong Un's head is seen exploding when his helicopter is hit by a missile.
The U.S. State Department has denied media reports it had given its backing to the film. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said "we're not in the business of signing off on content of movies or things along those lines."
Psaki confirmed that top Asia diplomat Daniel Russel had held a routine meeting with Sony executives to discuss foreign policy in Asia. But she denied the U.S. ambassador on human rights in North Korea, Robert King, had seen the movie.
The online publication Daily Beast alleged it had seen emails indicating at least two U.S. officials watched an unedited version of "The Interview" and had given it their blessing.
Last month’s attack, resulted in the leak confidential Sony data, including the private details of thousands of company employees, former employees and freelancers, as well as several Hollywood stars.
Sony was preparing for a Christmas Day release of the comedy about two journalists recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate North Korea's leader.
In a statement about its cancellation, Sony said it was "deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie and, in the process, do damage to our company, our employees and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome."
In an interview late Wednesday with ABC News, Obama called the cyberattack on Sony Pictures "very serious."
"We’re investigating it. We’re taking it seriously. We’ll be vigilant," Obama said. "If we see something that we think is serious and credible, we’ll alert the public. But, for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies."
Australian National University Korea analyst Leonid Petrov told VOA if the U.S. believes Pyongyang is responsible, its options are limited.
"I don't think the U.S. government has any leverage to influence North Korea. There's no negotiations, there's no diplomatic representation. There's no trade. There's basically no exchange, no joint projects."
The U.S. and its allies have already imposed round after round of economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs. The sanctions have devastated the North's economy and left it isolated from the rest of the world, but also resistant to further punishment by it.
Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies at the Netherlands' Leiden University, agrees that the U.S. has few good choices.
"I think the only thing you can do is take a very tough line on what you think should happen. So if North Korea is behind this, the best thing the U.S. could do is make sure this picture does get released one way or the other and protect from further hacking attempts.
Pyongyang condemns movie
Pyongyang has strongly denounced the comedy as an act of terrorism and had called for Sony to cancel the film. It has praised the hacking as a "righteous deed," while insisting it is not involved in the intrusion.
It is not clear whether the Guardians of Peace group is linked to Pyongyang, which is known to have a capable group of Internet hackers at its disposal. Some suspect the hackers may have been aided by an insider at Sony.
In a series of cyber-intrusions that began in late November, the group has released several rounds of sensitive, internal Sony emails that include everything from financial figures to squabbles between company executives and Hollywood actors.
The leaks also include private employee data and high-quality copies of films yet to be released.
Pyongyang was angered by the film and in June promised "merciless retaliation." But it has denied involvement in the attack. A North Korean diplomat told VOA earlier this month the accusation was a "fabrication."
Eriq Gardner, senior editor of The Hollywood Reporter, said the scale of the Sony hacking is unprecedented.
"There have been things that have made Hollywood studios change distribution of movies, but nothing like an attack from a nation-state forcing its hands on a movie that is really just a comedy," Gardner said.
"... There have been some people who have speculated, maybe jokingly, that this was all just a publicity stunt," he added. "But really, no matter how much money the film makes from here on out, it will not have been worth it to Sony. This is absolutely terrible for them."
One estimate had put the film’s potential revenue at up to $100 million. Instead, Doug Stone of the film industry newsletter Box Office Analyst believes, Sony is set to lose up to $55 million and could opt to release the film at a later date or offer it as a video on demand.
Bruce Bennett, a North Korea analyst for the think tank RAND Corp., said Sony’s decision to cancel the film’s release sets a potentially bad precedent.
"Foreigners who want to stop the release of a film can now follow the example of these hackers. That’s dangerous for the United States," said Bennett.
And, he added, it is good news for North Korea’s leaders.
"They don’t want this film to get out. They particularly don’t want it to get on DVD and get circulated into North Korea, which a lot of outside DVDs do because of the way it depicts Kim Jong Un fairly accurately, as being ruthless and deceptive and just in ways that don’t coincide with the regime’s propaganda," Bennett said.
Many in Hollywood took to Twitter to speak out against Sony's decision to scrap the movie's release. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel called the move "an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist's actions and sets a terrifying precedent." Actor Rob Lowe declared it an "utter and complete victory" for the hackers. Steve Carell, whose own film set in North Korea has been canceled, said it was a "sad day for creative expression."