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White House Calls Sony Cyber Attack "Serious National Security Matter"

The administration isn't naming names yet, but it is weighing a response.

Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

The White House considers the devastating cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment “a serious national security matter,” and is weighing how to respond.

A spokesman for the Obama administration declined to identify the “sophisticated actor” behind the destructive breach, saying it remains under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Division of the Department of Justice.

Re/code and other news organizations reported Wednesday that U.S. investigators believe North Korea is centrally involved in the attack. The attackers repeatedly demanded that Sony withdraw “The Interview,” a comedy revolving around a fictional CIA plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Sony canceled distribution of the film Wednesday after several of the nation’s largest theater owners refused to screen it following threats of violence from a hacker group calling itself Guardians of Peace.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the federal government is devoting significant resources to determining who is responsible for the assault, which resulted in the disclosure of salaries and other personal information, embarrassing emails, confidential business information and five films.

Administration officials are taking the attack seriously, in part, because the hackers didn’t just steal and leak information, they also destroyed information on Sony’s network in an effort to disrupt the company’s operations. “The activity we’ve seen here is destructive with malicious intent. It’s being investigated as such by the FBI and Department of Justice,” Earnest said.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest

President Obama is monitoring the situation closely, said Earnest, adding that there have been a number of daily meetings about the breach at the White House.

“As a general matter, the president and the administration stand squarely on the side of artists and others to freely express their views,” Earnest said. “Sometimes those views can be laced with criticism or are sometimes intended to provoke either some kind of comedic response or one that is intended to be some element of some pretty biting social commentary — all of that is appropriate and well within the rights of private citizens.”

Even as the investigation proceeds, Earnest said, the president’s national security team is weighing a response that is both “proportional” and mindful that some sophisticated actors carry out actions that are intended to provoke the United States.

“It’s not hard to imagine there may be some organizations or individuals who would perceive a specific response from the United States as something that might enhance their standing, either by their cohorts or on the world stage,” Earnest said. “We’re mindful of that phenomenon as we consider our response.”

Asked whether Sony’s decision to capitulate to the hackers’ demands set a dangerous precedent, Earnest said it was not the federal government’s call.

“Ultimately, this is a decision they had to make,” he said.

Earnest confirmed a report in the Daily Beast that Sony Pictures had consulted with administration officials about the movie before it was released. He said the filmmakers had requested the meeting and added that changes to the film were made by the film’s creators.

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