Belmont Club

A Single Sovereign

The Sony corporation defended itself against accusations it caved to North Korean extortionists who hacked the company’s computer systems. NBC News reports:

The CEO of Sony Entertainment said Friday that he and the company did contact the White House in the days before it decided to cancel the release of “The Interview” amid threats of violence, after President Barack Obama earlier called that decision “a mistake” and said, “I wish they had spoken to me first.”

“A few days ago I personally did reach out and speak to senior folks at the White House and informed them that we needed help … I did reach out and explain the situation at that time,” Michael Lynton said in an interview on CNN. “Did we talk to the president himself and talk to him about what was transpiring, that theaters were starting to pull back and being unwilling to distribute the movie? No. But the White House was certainly aware of the situation.”

Earlier Friday, Obama said Sony “made a mistake” when it cancelled the Dec. 25 release of the comedy. “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don’t like, or news reports they don’t like,” Obama said.

But while every network must defend itself, it’s not Sony’s job to defend itself against attacks by sovereign nations. The hack is only part of Pyongyang’s offense.  They are also engaged in intimidation. In president Obama’s own words Pyongyang is imposing its censorship laws in California.  They are asserting the power to legislate in the US.  It would be nice if Sony would resist, but the job of protecting individuals or organizations domiciled in the US against attacks by other nations is Obama’s. It is nobody else’s.  He’s the Commander in Chief.

The president has for example asserted that the states have no business going after illegal immigrants because the defense of borders is a federal responsibility. He is jealous of that power and sued the state of Arizona for its attempts to curb illegal immigration into that state. The New York Times reported in 2012:

The Obama administration argued that federal immigration law trumped — or pre-empted, in legal jargon — the state’s efforts. Last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, blocked the four provisions on those grounds, including the one the Supreme Court upheld. …

Justice Scalia went on. “Perhaps it is, though Arizona may not think so. But to say, as the court does, that Arizona contradicts federal law by enforcing applications of the Immigration Act that the president declines to enforce boggles the mind.”

He added that Arizona and other states should not be left helpless before the “evil effects of illegal immigration.”

Justice Kennedy responded that “federal law makes a single sovereign responsible for maintaining a comprehensive and unified system to keep track of aliens within the nation’s borders.”

The defense of the borders is a federal responsibility. The idea that a “single sovereign” is responsible for defending US borders against foreign incursions is central to the legitimacy of Washington.  To be fair, the administration has promised to do something unspecified to North Korea at a time of its choosing. It will retaliate somehow, someday.

But if the administration’s admonitions to Sony were any indication, the “single sovereign” is less than intimidating to its potential foes.  North Korea’s attack on Sony is also an indication of just how much Kim Jong-un respects president Obama.

North Korea’s attack on Sony may the forerunner of similar attacks by other countries on US infrastructure. The American Enterprise Institute warned that the US power grid is vulnerable to a hacking attack.

EMPs are not the only threat to the grid. In April 2013, snipers spent 19 minutes shooting up a power station near San Jose, Calif., and knocked out 17 big transformers. The utility was able to make up the power loss from other stations, but repairs took 27 days. …

Another threat is from cyber attacks. The grid runs on software code, which means that it could be hacked. The head of NSA recently warned that he expects major attacks within the next decade, and that it is a question of “when,” not “if.”

If the power grid goes down in a major city for an extended period of time, tens of thousand of people will die.  People will be trapped in high rises. Hospitals will fail to function. Food will spoil. Water supply pumping will fail. Your cell phone will become a useless piece of plastic.  Nothing will work.

Yet Bill Gertz quotes a DIA report which says ‘North Korea dispatched covert commando teams to the United States in the 1990s to attack nuclear power plants and major cities in a conflict’.

According to the report, the “Reconnaissance Bureau, North Korea, had agents in place to attack American nuclear power plants.”

The document states that the North Korean Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the ministry in charge of the military, “established five liaison offices in the early 1990s, to train and infiltrate operatives into the United States to attack nuclear power plants and major cities in case of hostilities.”

Whose responsibility is it if cops in Arizona come across a North Korean commando team fixing to attack the electric grid? They would probably think it was the federal government’s and act in support of an Army response.  But they would be right to presume the Army would respond if North Korean commandos were on the prowl.  It would never enter their minds that the Army would say it was the rancher’s problem. If a business has been ruined by a cyberattack from Iran or North Korea cybercommandos, why should the president admonish the company for “caving in”? Shouldn’t the company remind the president that he’s at least partially responsible for defending the territory of the United States?

Cyber-attacks by foreign governments on private individuals or corporations in the US are no longer a hypothetical. As the Sony case showed, they are an actuality. And as September 11 showed, sub-national organizations like al-Qaeda will not hesitate to deliver physical attacks on American soil. The Taliban grafted both the Sony and September 11 imagery into a single scene when it proclaimed that it’s recent attack on the children of the elite in Pakistan were “only a trailer” of what was to come. That Taliban movie may be coming to a theater near you.

And if such an attack comes, how will it be regarded? A law enforcement problem, an act of war? Something in-between?  Part of the problem is that boundaries between “war” and “crime” and “peace” have been blurred by the Commander in Chief himself. If groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are to be met by lawfare or police action, how then should the administration respond to North Korea?

The fact that president Obama can plausibly say ‘Sony it is your fault for not standing up to North Korea’ shows how little anyone expects any more from the Chief.  What does a “single sovereign” actually do in these days in of cross-border cyber attacks or when his territory is raided by “non-state” actors.  If we’ve abolished War then we might as well abolish the office of Commander in Chief. What does the C-in-C  do besides give advice to corporations?

Cyberwarfare between sovereign nations has been ongoing for some time.  For example, Iran’s centrifuges were attacked by a country best left unnamed; by the same token  US bank records were hacked by another country, located in the Far East, also best unnamed.  In each case the target country has probably retaliated as best it could.  So things went.

The Sony case is different in that  the perpetrating country openly claims responsibility.  By its open avowal North Korea has thrown down the gauntlet,  daring the United States government to respond in a clear-cut fashion. Until now cyberewarfare between nations could be likened to NBA players fouling each other when the referee wasn’t  looking.  Player A elbows Player B and Player B trips Player A on the return play, much to the entertainment of the onlookers.  But now North Korea has brought a baseball bat on court and openly attacked Player B with it.  Now what?

Sony may play its part in retaliating against North Korea, but clearly the ball is in Single Sovereign’s court.  We live in an era where government preoccupies itself with dispensing contraceptives, Obamaphones,  even advice on individual criminal cases or marital relationships.  By diverting its attention to these miscellaneous issues it has somewhat neglected its core duty: preserving the sovereignty of the American laws in American territory.

Just now North Korea has decided to proclaim its innocence and has proposed to investigate itself together with the US government, a generous proposal which if not accepted, will lead to “grave consequences”.  Fox News reports:

North Korea says it can prove it is not behind the massive Sony Pictures cyberattack that has led to several e-mail leaks, threats on movie theaters and the cancellation of the release of the movie “The Interview.”

The country has also said it proposes a joint investigation with the U.S. on the attack and if the U.S. does not agree, North Korea warns of “grave consequences,” state media says.

What is North Korean for “give me money”?


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