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Sony Hack: White House Considering Responses for ‘Serious National Security Matter’

The Obama administration is viewing the massive hack attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment as a “serious national security matter” and is considering a range of possible options as a response, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

Questions on theSony Pictures situation were the first Earnest faced at Thursday’s midday press briefing, and it was the dominant topic for journos throughout the hourlong session. Earnest was careful not to say that the White House believes North Korea was behind the attack. He emphasized that the investigation into the attack is “progressing” at the FBI and Justice Department.

Earnest confirmed that Sony Pictures officials reached out to the White House for “input” on the film, which was screened for administration officials back in June. He would not say who was in the screening or the specific feedback that was given. “We would not have been in a position of dictating” any changes, he said.

Earnest said the president was dismayed by the chilling effect on the freedom of expression from the threats of violence made earlier this week against movie theaters set to screen “The Interview.” The James Franco-Seth Rogen comedy about a pair set to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been cited by the hacker group Guardians of Peace as the catalyst for the hack attack and the series of data dumps and threatening messages.

Earnest made it clear that Sony hack, which surfaced Nov. 24, has engaged top members of the president’s national security team, who have held daily meetings on the matter in recent days. He said the administration is considering options for a response once the investigations are complete. He wouldn’t specify other than to say that a response would be “consistent with how will we protect against, monitor and respond to cyber-incidents. This is something that is being treated as a serious national security matter.”

As to the culprit, Earnest would say only that it was clear the incident was a “destructive attack with malicious intent initiated by a sophisticated actor.”

Earnest acknowledged that the situation was tricky for the administration as it involves a private company rather than the federal government. Any response will be “appropriate” and “proportional,” and he said that the steps taken may not be entirely “transparent” in an effort to avoid giving more attention to those responsible.

The administration team focused on the Sony issue includes national security adviser Susan Rice, Obama’s cyber-security coordinator Lisa Monaco, as well as senior members of the intelligence community and military, diplomatic and law enforcement officials, Earnest said. Obama is “monitoring very closely” the meetings.

The administration officials are “mindful (that) sophisticated actors when they carry out actions like this are oftentimes seeking to provoke response from the United States of America and that they believe a response from us would be advantageous for them,” Earnest said.

Earnest was also pressed on whether there’s any indication that the hacking threat has the potential to spread beyond Sony. He would say only that the FBI and Justice Dept. are looking closely at “the scope of this activity.” He said it was the fact that the attack was not merely a question of “cyber theft” but involved destructive efforts to destabilize Sony’s systems and other “malicious intent” that elevated the Sony situation beyond a private business matter to a national security concern.

“We believe an appropriate response is warranted,” Earnest said.

Earnest was careful not to criticize Sony Pictures’ decision to scrap the release of the movie, which was set to open on Dec. 25. He stressed the administration’s concern about protecting the First Amendment rights of artists and others.

“The president stands squarely on the side of artists and other private citizens who seek to freely express their views,” Earnest said, noting that Obama has been on the “receiving end” of such expression that was not flattering to him.

As for filmmakers specifically, Earnest said, “They have a right to be able to express themselves and produce these kinds of movies even if others find their brand of humor offensive.”

One reporter suggested the president could take a stand for freedom of expression by screening “The Interview” at the White House. Earnest noted that the first family is about to head out to their traditional Christmas trip to Hawaii.

“I don’t think we’ll be showing the film here any time soon but I wouldn’t rule it out in the future,” he said.

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