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Skeptical About North Korea’s Role in Sony Hack? Don’t Be

If the mounting skepticism regarding North Korea’s involvement in the Sony hack was expected to weaken the resolve of President Obama, that’s not what happened last week.

Days after the FBI reaffirmed its initial contention that North Korea was the culprit, President Obama made good on his own vow to mete out a proportionate response by announcing economic sanctions that will be just the first of such actions to come.

Looks like the Obama Administration wasn’t exactly paralyzed by second-guessing after various cybersecurity experts declared how unconvinced they were by what little evidence the FBI made public pointing to North Korea’s culpability.

No doubt there will be some out there who will read the tea leaves differently. If the administration was just trying to, say, conduct a kangaroo court, the swifter the punishment comes, the less time skeptics are given to uncover the cover-up as it occurs. Obama is used to this kind of conspiracy-minded logic by now given how it seems to have dogged his presidential tenure at every turn, from the “birther” controversy to Benghazi.

But while this kind of extreme skepticism toward Obama’s intentions has always gotten no quarter in my own mind, I must confess the Sony hack had me suspicious of the administration at first. But no longer.

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My initial distrust is rooted in how incomprehensibly the narrative of the Sony hack has unfolded. After being decimated by the hackers, Sony Pictures made an understandable decision to pull “The Interview” from theaters, particularly after a terrorist threat was made. Then Obama criticized Sony’s decision, which seemed to lead to a reversal of halting the movie’s release.

But that begs a few questions that I still can’t answer: As bad as it is to be criticized by a sitting president, was that (and criticism from others) really enough to compel Sony to risk yet another serious data leak by releasing the movie? And if the hackers praised Sony for making a “wise decision” when the studio pulled “The Interview,” why would they go quiet after the movie was reinstated?

Consequently, I’ve found it hard to accept just about anything as hard truth in this situation. And that skepticism was only heightened by reading the rather detailed analyses from cybersecurity experts poking holes in the FBI’s case.

But that’s also where my distrust begins to dissipate. First of all, as some of these same experts acknowledge, they don’t have all the facts. Both the FBI and the State Department have made clear they aren’t sharing all the evidence they have with the public, so any conclusions drawn from an incomplete analysis are obviously quite flawed.

You can criticize the administration for not sharing enough or not selectively divulging more convincing information, or worse, deem what little they’ve said a smokescreen to obscure totally bogus findings. But it’s also understandable that in a sensitive situation like a cyberterrorism investigation, certain aspects are going to stay classified.

But there’s an even simpler reason I am willing to give the Obama Administration the benefit of the doubt that North Korea is the culprit.

Consider the administration surely understands that given the U.S. was essentially hoodwinked by the Bush Administration into believing there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there would be some understandable cynicism about retaliations of that type in the future, even of the counter-cyberterrorism variety.

So it stands to reason that it would be an act of monumental stupidity capable of singlehandedly destroying Obama’s legacy if he was to recklessly rush to crucify North Korea without being damn sure the rogue nation was actually responsible, lest it somehow come to light by other means that he was wrong all along.

“Wrong” can mean two very different things, though both ultimately would be so horrible for Obama that he must be cocksure he’s right. The first way to look at “wrong” is that the administration is engaged in a pretty nefarious plot to frame North Korea for a crime it didn’t commit, as the country’s official proclamations would like us to believe.

Let’s assume for a second Obama is the evil mastermind Rush Limbaugh says he is. Why of all the politically expedient shenanigans to attempt would getting tough on North Korea without any real justification be worth the risk of exposure? The Sony hack was not 9/11; there is no public clamoring for retribution so fervently that Obama needed to deliver Kim Jong-un’s head on a plate just to quell the outraged masses. And if his intention to take such a foolhardy risk was to burnish his legacy as a tough leader, the Sony hack is too small stakes to make such a demonstration of his power that impactful.

The more charitable way to look at it “wrong” is that while the FBI had the most honorable of intentions, they simply screwed up and got fooled. Were this the case it would still be a pretty epic scandal that would expose just how woefully inadequate U.S. strategy on cybersecurity is. But again, the risk of this being the case is so great that the Obama Administration wouldn’t have moved against North Korea this quickly and aggressively unless it was in possession of a smoking gun.

I’m neither naive enough to believe our government never lies nor blind enough not to appreciate living in a democracy where openly questioning our president’s intentions is a sacred right of being a U.S. citizen (that freedom of expression certainly isn’t available in North Korea). But while the Obama Administration’s handling of the Sony hack has been less than stellar, I think there’s some compelling reasons to have faith that our president is not misleading us.

Maybe my trust will be proven stunningly naive in retrospect, and if so, I pledge to eat crow then.

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