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.
On Obama’s presidential watch, North Korea has carried out two nuclear tests, in 2009 and 2013, along with long-range missiles tests — working toward the ability to target the U.S. with nuclear weapons (which could open a whole new chapter in North Korea’s extortion rackets). The U.S. has watched. The sanctions imposed on North Korea have not stopped its WMD programs; they haven’t even stopped Kim from importing taboo equipment for his in-country ski resort.
In early November, shortly before the cyber attack on Sony, Kim Jong Un had the head of American intelligence, James Clapper, fly to Pyongyang at his summons. Though that episode appears to have already vanished down the Memory Hole, it’s worth recalling, because it might well have played into Pyongyang’s calculations of how easily America can be pushed around. Recall the two Americans arrested in North Korea, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, who effectively became hostages of the Pyongyang regime — to be released, perhaps, upon certain conditions. The price exacted by North Korea for releasing them was the visit of a senior U.S. official, of a stature to Pyongyang’s liking. The U.S. complied by sending Clapper. Upon his return, he described being treated there with considerable discourtesy. In the account he gave to The Wall Street Journal, it sounded as if they went so far as to threaten him, upon learning he had not brought them some offer they seemed to expect. According to Clapper, while he was in Pyongyang a North Korean official told him they “could not guarantee my safety and security,” and he had better collect the two American prisoners and get out. Despite that, Clapper told them he’d be glad to go back.
Small wonder that North Korea might expect to get away with censoring a movie in America by using cut-outs to cyber-assault a private film company and following that up with terror threats against Americans.
What was Obama busy doing on Tuesday, while Sony and American movie theater chains were pondering the hacker threat of another Sept.11th?
By his own account, he was on the phone to the president of Cuba, arranging the details of their simultaneous announcements the next day, in Washington and Havana, of Obama’s plans to normalize relations and seek an end to the U.S. embargo. Apparently, that had become a project so urgent that it took priority over addressing a terrorist threat from North Korea, on U.S. turf.
Now Obama says that if Sony had just called him, he would have given them a pep talk — and presumably saved them from the “mistake” of pulling a movie that theaters had been terrorized into dropping from their holiday schedules.
If anyone ever decides to make a satirical movie about this saga, and actually dares to do so, there’s a scene that with a tweak or two practically writes itself. That would be the scene in which the head of the hacked and threatened film company, haggard and desperate, finally picks up the phone and dials the White House. He asks to speak to the president of the United States. He is put on hold. Then a bureaucratic voice comes on the line, and says: “Sorry, could you call back in another day or two? He’s on the line to Cuba’s President Raul Castro.”
Maybe the next private American enterprise to fall victim to state-sponsored cyber assault combined with terrorist threats will pick up the phone, call the president, get a pep talk, and all will be well. Just hope there’s no need for it till Obama returns on Jan. 4 from his Hawaii vacation.