White House Approaching Sony Hack as "National Security Issue"

The Interview Still 6 - H 2014
Ed Araquel

The Interview Still 6 - H 2014

"We're calling on Congress to act on cyber security. This is not the sort of topic that should allow us to be divided on party lines," press secretary Josh Earnest said

During a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the hacking of Sony's internal computer system has become a "national security issue" involving federal law enforcement and diplomatic personnel.

Earnest also confirmed revelations from the latest batch of internal Sony emails released by the hackers that two members of the administration had screened "a rough cut" of The Interview — the impending release of which may have prompted the attack — at Sony's request, but Earnest said Thursday that they had made no recommendations about changes or how to proceed.

With the hacking crisis continuing to unfold, Earnest said the government's "national security team" is considering "a range of actions" in response, and that the FBI's investigation "remains ongoing," but he declined to attribute the assault on Sony directly to North Korea. However, the press secretary did indicate that the government has settled on a foreign origin for the cyberattack. 

Sony canceled the release of comedy The Interview — in which two American journalists (played by Seth Rogen and James Franco) are enlisted by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — on Wednesday following the top five major theater circuits' decision not to screen the film when it was set to debut on Dec. 25. 

Earnest said there have been daily national security meetings at the White House on the Sony hacking situation and President Obama "is monitoring the discussions on a daily basis," as well.

"The details of the investigation are extraordinarily complex," Earnest said.

The press secretary also said, "We're calling on Congress to act on cyber security. This is not the sort of topic that should allow us to be divided on party lines."

When asked about sanctions on North Korea, Earnest stated: "There are a range of options under consideration right now. I'm not going to speculate on which options might work best.

"We have seen there has been destructive activity with malicious intent, and this administration believes that activity merits an appropriate response," he said. 

With regards to Sony pulling the film, Earnest said: "I'm sympathetic to the very difficult decision [Sony] had to make. Ultimately this is a decision they had to make based on their own best interests."

"We stand squarely on the side of private individuals to express themselves," Earnest said, indicating the Obama Administration's continuing support for controversial films that may stir opposition from sensitive foreign government.

Earnest told reporters in the White House press corps that "if it is determined that this attack originated with a foreign government" the president feels a "proportionate" response would be required.

Earnest said that "as a general matter, the president does feel that some of the [cyberattacks] we have seen in recent years are a threat to national security" and that Obama is searching for ways to "help the private sector protect their networks from attack" and has sought to promote international cooperation against the threat. He also said the administration is working on more defensive cyber technologies, though the White House remains wary of giving hackers "undo status" with too strong an American reaction.

"What we saw here is unique, carried out by a sophisticated source, which in the president's mind elevates this to a national security matter," Earnest said.