- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2014

President Obama on Sunday called the unprecedented North Korean cyberattack on Sony Pictures an act of “cybervandalism,” not war, sparking outrage among lawmakers who believe the U.S. response has been too weak and may invite further aggression.

The national security debate comes as Sony searches for an avenue to show “The Interview,” a film depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un scheduled for a Christmas release but shelved after terrorist threats against participating movie theaters.

The ordeal has put Mr. Obama at odds with both Sony and critics in Congress, with the president in recent days blasting Sony for yanking the movie and, in essence, giving in to North Korean demands. Sony executives say they’re disappointed in the president’s comments and blame movie theater chains for refusing to carry the film.

The president waded even deeper into the issue on Sunday, telling CNN he might have personally called movie theater companies and told them to show the film if Sony had asked him to.

Beyond the movie itself and the complex set of questions it has raised in Washington, Hollywood and across the country, Mr. Obama also must calculate an American response to a clear cyberattack by a nation-state.

He vowed a proportionate response but would not say North Korea’s actions constitute war. He also refused to discuss the details of U.S. retaliation.

“I don’t think it was an act of war. I think it was an act of cybervandalism that was costly, very expensive, and we take [it] very seriously, and we will respond proportionally,” Mr. Obama told CNN’s “State of the Union” program in an interview taped Friday.

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill charge that Mr. Obama simply isn’t treating North Korea’s attack as seriously as he should. North Korean hackers, critics point out, not only successfully found their way into Sony servers — and released troves of embarrassing emails in the process — but also led a major film company to change course on a scheduled release, raising questions of how easily American free speech rights can be quashed by foreign threats.

North Korea has denied it was to blame and has offered to help find the perpetrators.

“This was a nation-state attack on the United States, and saying ‘Aloha’ and getting on an airplane and going to Hawaii is not the answer that really the world needs, let alone America,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

Following a Friday press conference at the White House in which he said Sony “made a mistake” pulling the movie, Mr. Obama and his family left for a two-week holiday vacation in Hawaii.

Other Republicans say North Korea’s actions clearly constitute war, even if the president won’t say so.

“I think, again, the president does not understand this is a manifestation of a new form of warfare,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told CNN. “When you destroy economies and when you are able to impose censorship on the world and especially the United States of America, it’s more than vandalism. It’s a new form of warfare that we’re involved in, and we need to react and react vigorously.”

Mr. McCain called for, among other things, reimposing economic sanctions on North Korea that were lifted during the final days of the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, Sony has found itself fending off criticism from all sides, including from the White House. The company said it has had very few allies in recent days and has endured the brunt of a foreign cyberattack with little help from its government or supposed friends in Hollywood.

“Nobody was stepping up. In the three weeks where Sony fought this issue by itself … none of the second-guessers who are out there now saying what a terrible thing this is, none of them were standing up to help Sony then,” said Sony attorney David Boies, referring to the weeks between the initial cyberattack and last week’s decision to pull the film and subsequent condemnation by Mr. Obama.

Mr. Boies, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that one of the company’s only allies has been A-list actor George Clooney, who circulated a petition supporting Sony and calling for “The Interview” to be released.

No one in Hollywood signed the petition, Mr. Clooney said late last week.

He also said Sony remains committed to distributing the film in some fashion — something lawmakers now believe is vitally important not because of the film’s content, but because of the larger message it would send.

“I think it’s important that that movie be played, that that movie be seen. I don’t even know if it’s a good movie, but I think it is now important that we figure out a way to get that out there so Americans can watch it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, told the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “It is unacceptable that this attack [was] not just on our country, not just on a business located in America but on our constitutional freedoms. If it is unresponded to, if it stays the way it is now, it is going to be an incentive for others to do the exact same thing in the future.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus expressed similar sentiments in a letter to movie theater executives over the weekend, urging them to show the film and pledging to urge millions of GOP donors and supporters to buy a ticket and go see it.

Regardless of whether “The Interview” ever is widely seen, the ordeal highlights a number of issues that must be addressed by the federal government and private sector, former counterterrorism officials say, including the institution of legal protections for movie theaters and other companies in the event of a terrorist attack.

In addition, the government and private industry must cooperate and share information, said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

“The rest of the U.S. corporations have the same vulnerabilities that Sony does. So we can’t just look at the private sector,” he said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “The private sector is going to have to re-architect. The U.S. government is going to get much more involved in defending.”

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