US weighs response to Sony threat

US weighs response to Sony threat
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The White House is treating the cyberattack on Sony Pictures as a “legitimate national security matter” as the film studio deals with the fallout from its controversial decision to pull “The Interview” from theaters.

Sony canceled the Christmas Day premiere of the film late Wednesday after a hacking group raised the possibility of Sept. 11-style attacks on theaters that show the movie, which portrays the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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The escalation followed a massive data breach at Sony that resulted in a trove of embarrassing emails being released to the public.

North Korea is suspected of being behind the cyber assault, though the White House on Thursday declined to point fingers.

“It's fair to say that the investigation is progressing,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “This is something they've been looking into for quite some time, and I know that there is significant investigative resources that have been committed to this effort, and they've been making progress.”

Earnest did say the hack was carried out by a “sophisticated actor,” but would not detail the range of responses the White House is considering.

CNN reported late Thursday that U.S. officials plan on blaming North Korea on Friday for the hack, but are still deciding how to retaliate. 

Sony’s decision to shelve “The Interview,” a comedy from the actors Seth Rogen and James Franco, touched a nerve in the U.S., with politicians and Hollywood moguls alike questioning whether the United States is cowering in the face of foreign threats.

Sony’s decision “sets a troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon,” said Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGrassley to test GOP on lowering drug prices Listen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal MORE (R-Ariz.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“But, make no mistake, the need for Sony Pictures to make that decision ultimately arose from the administration’s continuing failure to satisfactorily address the use of cyber weapons by our nation’s enemies.”

Republican lawmakers pushed for a stronger response from the administration, arguing the Sony incident is just the opening skirmish in a new cyber war between the U.S. and North Korea.

“I think it's important that the administration responds under the military doctrine of proportional response,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) during an interview on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”

But in the new, undefined world of cyber warfare, the proper U.S. response is becoming a matter of fierce debate.

House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) suggested the Obama administration should cut off North Korea’s access to currency.

“It’s time we respond with those kind of sanctions, which is say to the [international] community, ‘Look, you either bank with the United States or you bank with the North Koreans,’” he said on CNN.

Cut off from access to hard currency, Royce said, North Korea wouldn’t be able to bankroll their cybersecurity operations.

“Give them a choice between compromise and economic collapse,” Royce said.

While many in the entertainment industry lamented Sony’s decision, with actor Rob Lowe and writer-producer Judd Apatow among the harshest critics, many said they understood the studio’s desire to play it safe, especially given that major theater chains were already refusing to show the film.

“The decision by Sony, however disappointing, is justified,” said Noah Cowan, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, one of the few organizations to screen “The Interview” before the rash of cancellations.

“What Sony does now is really what matters,” he said.

The future of the film remains an open question, with speculation swirling that Sony will bury the film in the vaults, file an insurance claim, release it online or even bring it back to theaters in a show of defiance. 

Free speech advocates say Sony’s decision could have lasting ramifications.

“I think this is going to have a chilling effect both in the fictional area — whether it’s movies, books or TV shows — and also in terms of newsgathering and news reporting,” said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment law professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.

Already, Hollywood has cooled on North Korean projects. Film studio New Regency scrapped a Gore Verbinski-directed thriller starring Steve Carell about an American working in North Korea.

“I find it ironic that fear is eliminating the possibility to tell stories that depict our ability to overcome fear,” Verbinski wrote in an email to Deadline.

In addition, Paramount Pictures on Thursday blocked theaters from showing “Team America: World Police” — another film that pokes fun at North Korea — after theaters scheduled showing in place of “The Interview.”

Cowan said he believes “The Interview” must be released, lest it embolden political regimes that aim to stifle speech and dissent.

“Will a corporation take on a documentary that’s critical of [Vladimir] Putin’s Russia?” Cowan said.

Foreign hackers have long made media companies a target. The Syrian Electronic Army, for example, infiltrated The New York Times in 2013, taking down the media giant’s site.

But no media organization has faced the kind of public, violent threats that are being directed at Sony.

“Freedom of speech is a very important thing, not just in this country, but all over the world,” Royce said. “If we’re going to move the needle in places like North Korea and see humanity continue to experience the possibility of more freedom, it is through news and information.”

“Beginning to self-censor ourselves is setting us exactly in the wrong direction here,” he added.

During the press conference Thursday, Earnest declined to weigh in on whether Sony dealt a blow to free expression by axing its film.

He did, however, affirm the U.S. “stands squarely on the side of artists and companies that want to express themselves.

“We believe that that kind of artistic expression is worthy of expression and is not something that should be subjected to intimidation just because you happen to disagree with the views.”

Justin Sink contributed.