The more the Obama administration says about the Sony hacking incident — and the related threats against the company and movie theater chains if it released the comedy film “The Interview” — the less confident Americans should feel about Washington’s ability to deal with cyber-attacks, and to protect the public from its effects and similar attempts at intimidation. In particular, the President confused attempting to reassure with indulging in bravado.
If you think this conclusion is overly harsh, consider the president’s remarks in his year-end press conference. Although he expressed sympathy for Sony’s predicament, he declared that the company “made a mistake” by canceling “The Interview’s” release. “I wish they had spoken to me first,” he continued. “I would have told them do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”
Yesterday, he elaborated, telling CNN “You know, had they talked to me directly about this decision, I might have called the movie theater chains and distributors and asked them what that story was. Sometimes this is a matter of setting a tone and being very clear that we’re not going to be intimidated by some, you know, cyberhackers. And I expect all of us to remember that and operate on that basis going forward.”
But it’s hard to imagine that Sony’s response – or anyone’s – would have been much different if Mr. Obama told the company everything he said on the matter to the American people in his press conference. First the nature of the problem – which the President described with commendable candor:
>”In this interconnected, digitized world, there are going to be opportunities for hackers to engage in cyber attacks in the public sector and the private sector.”
>”I think all of us have to anticipate that occasionally there are going to be breaches like this. They’re going to be costly. They are going to be serious.”
>”Even as we get better, the hackers are going to get better, too. Some are going to be state actors. Some are going to be non-state actors. All are going to be sophisticated and many will do some damage.”
“Right now, it is the Wild West. Part of the problem is you have weak states that can engage in these kinds of attacks. You have non-state actors that can do enormous damage.
“This is not just going to affect movies. This is going to affect our entire economy in ways that are extraordinarily scary.”
And here’s why Mr. Obama apparently thinks Sony should have shown more backbone and why, as he said earlier in the week, Americans in general should be confident that they can “go to the movies.”
>“Our first order of business is to prevent these attacks….But a lot more needs to be done.”
>”[W]e will respond. We will respond proportionally and in a place and time and manner that we choose.”
>”More broadly…this should be cause to work with the international community to start setting up some very clear rules of the road in terms of how the internet and cyber operates.”
The first in this second group of statements confesses that America’s cyber defenses remain all too porous. The second, as I explained on Friday, signals weakness. In fact, yesterday, Pyongyang reacted by threatening “the toughest counteraction” to any U.S. retaliation. Given the North’s penchant for over-the-top rhetoric, this statement per se certainly shouldn’t have the administration of the nation quaking. But it also doesn’t reveal much fear of American responses.
As for the third of the above Obama statements, it’s simply delusional. The North Koreans, like the Chinese and the Iranians and the non-state cyber-hackers, clearly lie outside the “international community” when it comes to hacking – and so much else. They won’t respect rules. They’ll only respect results.
I’m not blaming President Obama for his failure so far to devise effective counter-measures for a relatively new threat like cyber-aggression. I am blaming him for suggesting that Sony – and the rest of the nation – are much more secure than they actually are, and for upbraiding the company for a lack of backbone. It sounds like nothing so much as an unseemly recommendation that “Let’s you and him fight.”
Much better – and genuinely inspiring – would have been a vow to work with Sony and the public to develop a clear, joint campaign of defiance to Pyongyang, and leave no doubt to everyone – including current and future hacking victims – that Americans are all in this fight together.