Sony “made a mistake” in shelving a satirical film about a plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader, US president Barack Obama said, and he pledged the US would respond “in a place and manner and time that we choose” to the hacking attack on Sony that led to the withdrawal.
The FBI blamed the hack on the communist government.
Speaking of executives at Sony Pictures Entertainment, Obama said on Friday at a year-end news conference, “I wish they had spoken to me first.We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship.”
Obama said he imagined situations in which dictators “start seeing a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.”
Sony said it had had no choice but to cancel distribution of the movie since cinemas were refusing to show it. North Korea denied anew that it had hacked the studio.
“There is not any connection,” UN diplomat Kim Song said. Song criticised the film but disputed his government hacked Sony and orchestrated the movie’s shutdown: “It defamed the image of our country. It made a mockery of our sovereignty. We reject it. But there is no relation” to the hacking.
The US decision to openly blame North Korea – which involved agreement by the State Department and intelligence agencies – escalated a global game of brinkmanship. It happened after the disclosure of confidential Sony emails and business files and threats of terror attacks against US cinemas until Sony agreed to cancel the Christmas Day release of its comedy, The Interview.
Obama spoke not long after the FBI provided the most detailed accounting to date of the digital break-in. The president’s pointed criticism of Sony shifted focus to whether the studio would modify its decision, as some leading celebrities – including actors George Clooney and Sean Penn – have recommended.
“Sony is a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I am sympathetic to the concerns that they faced,” Obama said. “Having said all that, yes, I think they made a mistake.”
Sony Pictures chief executive Michael Lynton said it was the president who was mistaken, noting that Sony cancelled the release only after all major cinema chains decided not to show the movie. But the Homeland Security Department concluded those threats were not credible, and the top multiplex chains in North America dropped The Interview only after Sony informed them it would not protest if the cinemas pulled the film.
“The president, the press and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened,” Lynton told CNN. “We do not own movie theatres. We cannot determine whether or not a movie will be played in movie theatres.”
Lynton did not indicate whether Sony planned to release the movie on DVD or through video-on-demand services, which are not controlled by cinemas, but the company suggested that was an option in a statement late Friday.
“The only decision that we have made with respect to release of the film was not to release it on Christmas Day in theatres, after the theatre owners declined to show it,” the company said. “After that decision, we immediately began actively surveying alternatives to enable us to release the movie on a different platform.”
As for the case against North Korea, the US detected communications between computer internet addresses known to be operated by North Korea and hacking tools left behind at the crime scene, which the FBI said contained subtle clues linking them to that country’s government.
The U.S. said in a statement: “North Korea’s actions were intended to inflict significant harm on a US business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves.” The statement included a general promise to impose “costs and consequences” on any person, group or government using cyber attacks to threaten the US or its interests.
Obama wasn’t any more specific.
“They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond,” he said. “We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It’s not something that I will announce here today at a press conference.”
In Hollywood, Clooney said the entertainment industry should push for immediate release of The Interview online. In an interview with the trade site Deadline, he urged Sony to “do whatever you can to get this movie out. Not because everybody has to see the movie, but because I’m not going to be told we can’t see the movie. That’s the most important part”.
Penn said: “By caving to the outside threat, we make our nightmares real. The decision to pull The Interview is historic. It’s a case of putting short-term interests ahead of the long term.”