From Hollywood back-biting to North Korean terrorist threats against American movie-goers, the hacking-of-Sony saga by now includes so many stupefying elements that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s focus on President Obama’s remarks at his end-of-year press conference Friday, when he criticized Sony Pictures Entertainment for canceling its planned Christmas Day nation-wide release of The Interview, the movie that incurred the wrath of Pyongyang by making fun of one of the 21st century’s most ludicrous tyrants, Kim Jong Un.
A reporter asked Obama if Sony had made a mistake in pulling the movie. Obama summarized part of the background: “Sony is a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced.”
Having staked out his ground as a sympathetic observer, he hit the punch line: “Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.”
He went on to say: “I wish they had spoken to me first. I would have told them, do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”
Pause the tape right there. What did the president leave out? Why, he omitted the terrorist threats of physical assault issued by the hackers, who — having cyber-attacked, robbed and humiliated Sony for more than three weeks — finally sent emails captioned “Warning.” These emails threatened that a “bitter fate” awaited anyone who might go to a screening of The Interview, and drove home the point with the message: “The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September, 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave).”
These emails surfaced in media reports on Tuesday, Dec. 16. The threats came from hackers who had already demonstrated considerable destructive power and intent with their massive cyber assault on Sony. Movie theaters took the threat seriously (so did the police departments in Los Angeles and New York, according to Reuters), and scrapped plans to show The Interview. With no one willing to show the movie, Sony — already hit with costly destruction — pulled the plug on the release.
This was not merely a criminal attack. It was a terrorist threat issued by hackers whom, at that stage, the administration had evidently identified as working for North Korea. Look at the timing. By the evening of the next day, Dec. 17, newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were carrying stories sourced to anonymous “senior administration officials” who were saying the administration had concluded North Korea was behind the attacks — but government insiders were not yet sure when or how to officially release that information, or what to do about it. According to The Wall Street Journal, the debate had already been going on inside the administration for days. But confirmation of North Korea’s role did not start seeping out, via these anonymous tips, until after Sony had canceled the release. (Official confirmation did not come until Friday morning, three days after the threats on theaters.)
In other words, both Sony and the movie theaters were left to twist in the face of a terrorist threat, while the White House knew that North Korea was behind it, but did nothing to take the lead. Now the president blames Sony, on the grounds that because they pulled the movie, the terrorists won. Though in the case of Sony, he did not impute the threat to terrorists. He basically implied that the problem was — to borrow a phrase — workplace violence. He said: “Imagine if, instead of it being a cyber-threat, somebody had broken into their offices and destroyed a bunch of computers and stolen disks. Is that what it takes for you to suddenly pull the plug on something?”
With that, he neatly shifted onto the private sector the job of coping with terrorist threats from North Korea, and downgraded an act of war by a nation-state to a criminal attack.
Actually, it is the federal government, not the movie industry, that is richly empowered by U.S. citizens and lavishly funded by U.S. taxpayers to protect the country against terrorist threats. It is the job of President Obama, not the head of Sony Pictures, to lead — from in front — when a state-sponsored terrorist threat is issued against Americans. And if Obama has conducted his foreign policy in such a way that North Korea is emboldened to launch this kind of assault against a company in the U.S., and issue threats invoking Sept. 11 against Americans who choose to go to a movie theater in America, then it is Obama’s job to take responsibility for his failure, and fix it.