President Obama on Friday said that Sony Pictures Entertainment “made a mistake” in pulling the movie “The Interview.” The president spoke just hours after the FBI announced that North Korea was responsible for the cyber-attack on the studio.
“Yes, I think they made a mistake,” he said at a press conference, in response to a question about whether he agreed with Sony’s decision. He cited what the effect could be on distribution of other types of films, like documentaries, that certain foreign regimes don’t like.
“We can not have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship in the United States, because if somebody is able to intimidate us out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing once they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like,” Obama said. “That’s now who we are. That’s not what America is about.” His opinion on Sony’s decision to pull the movie was in line with a number of industry voices who wondered if it set a bad precedent.
He added, “We cannot start changing our patterns of behavior any more than we stop going to a football game because there may be a possibility of a terrorist attack.” He cited the case of the running of the Boston Marathon this year after a terrorist attack a year earlier.
“I wish they had spoken to me first,” Obama said, referring to Sony. “I would have told them do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”
The FBI announced on Friday that it has concluded that North Korea was behind the attack on SPE’s computer systems. The bureau cited malware linked to “other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed.”
A key question is what kind of response, if any, the U.S. government will take. MPAA chairman Chris Dodd called the cyber-attack a “despicable, criminal act” that was the work of cyber-terrorists.
Obama said that the U.S. would “respond, and respond proportionately…in a place and at a time of our choosing,” but he declined to go into details. He said that the U.S. had “no indication” that another country, such as China, was also involved.
“We just confirmed that it was North Korea. We have been considering a range of options which will be presented to me,” adding that he would make his decision based on what he perceives as what is a “proportional” response.
Obama said that it “says something about North Korea” that they would launch an attack on Sony over a “satirical movie starring Seth Rogen.” He also mentioned James Franco, albeit mispronouncing his name as “James Flacco.” “I love Seth and I love James,” he said.
He called for measures to improve cyber-security, noting that such attacks would threaten “not just a movie studio but the economy.”
He said that he has a “long list of movies I am going to be watching,” in response to a question about whether he will watch the movie.
That Obama came out so directly against Sony’s decision to pull “The Interview” is somewhat of a surprise, but he indicated that he was concerned over future responses in the private sector to such threats. Obama has longtime ties to Michael Lynton, the chairman of SPE, as Lynton raised money for his presidential bid and for his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Obama appeared on the Sony lot in 2011 for an early reelection fundraiser on a studio soundstage.
The FBI’s announcement that North Korea was responsible for the cyber attack drew a strong reaction from Secretary of State John Kerry, who issued a statement saying, “These lawless acts of intimidation demonstrate North Korea’s flagrant disregard for international norms. Threats in cyberspace pose one of the greatest national security challenges to the United States, and North Korea’s actions – intended to inflict significant economic damage and suppress free speech – are well beyond the bounds of acceptable state behavior in cyberspace.”