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White House Sony Hack Sanctions on North Korea “Symbolic,” Former CIA Director Says

The administration could have done more to hit North Korea where it hurts, former intelligence community officials say.

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The Obama administration’s “proportional” response to North Korea’s alleged cyber assault on Sony Pictures Entertainment has been somewhat underwhelming, two former senior intelligence community officials said Thursday.

Sanctions announced earlier this month by the White House were “pretty light” and “symbolic at best,” said retired General Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, at a cyber security panel in Washington, D.C.

Washington Post reporter Ellen Nakashima interviews former Rep. Mike Rogers and retired Gen. Michael Hayden during a panel in Washington, D.C.
Washington Post reporter Ellen Nakashima interviews former Rep. Mike Rogers and retired Gen. Michael Hayden during a panel in Washington, D.C.

Three North Korean entities, including an intelligence organization and two defense-related trading companies, were sanctioned as part of what the White House has called a “proportional” response to the Sony hack.

Administration officials have said some facets of the U.S.’s response might not be visible and would come at a time of the administration’s choosing.

Amid continued questions about North Korea’s involvement, Federal Bureau of Investigation head James Comey last week defended government investigators’ findings that Pyongyang had masterminded the November hacks on Sony, which crippled the studio’s computer systems and resulted in a series of embarrassing leaks.

Comey said the attackers got “sloppy” and left clues via the IP addresses they used in the breach.

Hayden said he has no doubt that North Korea was responsible for the attacks and he was “comfortable with the president’s assessment.”

But, he suggested, it would have been more helpful if the administration had not said it would retaliate with a “proportional” response and if the sanctions instead had been targeted at North Korea’s ruling class.

“When you can turn the torque up on elites for luxury goods and the ability to change money you do have an effect on the North Korean regime,” he said. “The sanctions imposed last month are not that.”

Recently retired Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., former House Intelligence Committee chairman, agreed that the sanctions imposed by the U.S. seemed light and unlikely to hurt elite North Koreans who help run the country.

“I assumed after the announcement we would see A, a list of sanctions and then B, you’d have some other series of events that would happen that would make the North Koreans say that just wasn’t worth it. … The movie wasn’t that good either,” Rogers said.

A group of cyber attackers, calling themselves the Guardians of Peace, had demanded that Sony not release the raunchy R-rated comedy “The Interview,” in which actors Seth Rogan and James Franco participate in a fictional CIA plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jung-un.

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