The White House vowed a “proportional” response Thursday to North Korea’s suspected hacking of Sony Pictures, as lawmakers pledged to beef up the nation’s cybersecurity defenses and blamed the Obama administration for failing to get tough with state-sponsored hackers.
Administration officials said President Obama’s national security team is considering a range of options to retaliate against those responsible for the cyberattack on the movie studio, which canceled the release of the $42 million film “The Interview” under threat of Sept. 11-style violence at theaters.
But White House aides said the public might never know the extent of the U.S. response, given the clandestine nature of cyberwarfare.
“I don’t anticipate that we’ll be in a position where we’re going to be able to be completely forthcoming about every single element of the response that has been decided upon,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
The response came as news networks reported Thursday that Sony’s computer system was hacked via theft of a system administrator’s credentials and as the chill in Hollywood against risking the North Korean regime’s wrath spread to more films.
The administration’s options could be limited, given North Korea’s relative isolation from the world’s financial and commercial markets.
SEE ALSO: Celebrities, lawmakers slam Sony’s surrender: ‘The hackers won’
Publicly, the White House wasn’t pointing the finger at North Korea, saying the FBI’s investigation into the hacking isn’t completed. But administration officials said on background that “sophisticated” agents working at the behest of Pyongyang were responsible for stealing nearly 38 million files from the studio.
North Korea praised the attack but denied responsibility. The attack began a month ago as Sony prepared to promote the comedy film about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It stars Seth Rogen and James Franco.
The White House is taking a cautious approach because Mr. Obama’s advisers are “mindful of the fact that we need a proportional response,” Mr. Earnest said.
“Sophisticated actors, when they carry out actions like this, are oftentimes … seeking to provoke a response from the United States of America,” he said. “They may believe that a response from us in one fashion or another could be advantageous to them. We want to be mindful of that, too.”
In Congress, top Republican lawmakers said the Sony attack and others like it were occurring in part because the Obama administration hasn’t devoted enough attention to cybersecurity.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and likely the next chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Sony’s decision to pull the movie “ultimately arose from the administration’s continuing failure to satisfactorily address the use of cyberweapons by our nation’s enemies.”
“From Iranian and Russian attacks on American banks to China’s orchestrated campaign to steal military secrets from our defense contractors, the administration’s failure to deter our adversaries has emboldened, and will continue to embolden, those seeking to harm the United States through cyberspace,” Mr. McCain said in a statement.
SEE ALSO: Obama officials screened ‘The Interview’ before cyberattacks on Sony
If elected chairman of the committee next month, he said, he will form a subcommittee to focus on cybersecurity and “hold the administration accountable for its failure to institute a meaningful strategy for combating these increasingly brazen and dangerous actions.”
Rep. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on cybersecurity, said Mr. Obama should sign cybersecurity legislation to protect infrastructure, a measure approved by Congress and awaiting the president’s signature.
“American businesses, financial networks, government agencies and infrastructure systems like power grids are at continual risk,” Mr. Meehan said. “They’re targeted not just by lone hackers and criminal syndicates, but by well-funded nation states like North Korea and Iran. A lack of consequences for when nation states carry out cyberattacks has only emboldened these adversaries to do more harm.”
He said the attack on Sony “shows the dire need to upgrade our cyberdefenses.”
According to CNN, U.S. investigators have used signal intelligence and other means to find digital footprints that incriminate North Korea, and they expect to issue a statement “as early as Friday morning.”
The top-level IT worker’s passwords gave Pyongyang the “keys to the entire building” while making the hack look like an inside job for a long time, one official told the network.
Meanwhile, two other films were affected the sudden allergy of film distributors to North Korea related subject matter.
Director Gore Verbinski, who helmed “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the animated “Rango,” said Fox had reversed itself and would not distribute his planned film “Pyongyang,” a thriller set in North Korea with Steve Carrell as the star. As a result, financiers pulled the plug and the film, based on a graphic novel, had to shut down, he said in a statement.
In addition, Paramount refused Thursday to permit several theaters to show its film “Team America: World Police” as a puckish substitute for canceled screenings of “The Interview,” as some had planned. The ribald 2004 puppet comedy portrays former North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il, the current dictator’s father, as a James Bond style-villain who morphs into a cockroach.
The incident is prompting privacy advocates to call for additional safeguards to protect data in the digital age. Two former Sony film production workers have filed lawsuits alleging the company delayed notifying nearly 50,000 employees that personal data such as Social Security numbers, salaries and medical records had been stolen in the security breach.
A lawsuit this week from two other former Sony employees accused the studio of negligence for failing to beef up its defenses against hackers before the attack. The complaint said emails and other stolen data show that Sony’s information technology department and its top attorney believed its security system was vulnerable to attack, but that the company did not take corrective action.
Criticism continued to pour in Thursday over Sony’s decision to cancel the release of the movie. Bush administration counterterrorism adviser Frances Townsend said the studio’s decision sets “a horrible precedent.”
“This is not a one-off. The studios will face this again,” she said at a forum in Washington.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov of Russia said on his Twitter account: “If threats from poor Stalinist prison camp of North Korea can do this, imagine Russia & China, with huge resources. They are watching.”
The White House said it was Sony’s decision to cancel the film’s release. But in an odd twist, the White House acknowledged that Obama administration officials screened a rough cut of the movie last summer and raised no objections to the film depicting the assassination of North Korea’s leader.
Mr. Earnest said officials from the State Department served as informal consultants on the picture, but there was “certainly nothing that was dictated by the administration” as far as changes to the film.
Stolen internal Sony emails showed that Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, helped consult on the film. Daniel Russell, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also was involved with Sony executives during the film’s production but has denied having any direct influence on the content.
“Administration officials were consulted about the film, prior to its release, at the request of officials from the company that was producing the movie,” Mr. Earnest said.
• Dave Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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