White House viewing Sony hack as national security threat

The U.S. is considering

A banner for "The Interview"is posted outside Arclight Cinemas, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

(CNN) – The Obama administration is now calling the cyber-terror attack on Sony a national security threat. The White House is vowing there will be what it calls a “proportional” response.

The White House says it wants a proportional response, but one that does not give in to any North Korean provocation. They are clearly still working out how to achieve that balance, but several options are under discussion, including tightening already stringent sanctions on the dirt-poor North Korean economy.

With the administration close to publicly blaming North Korea for the Sony hack, meetings are now underway at the White House to launch what it calls a “proportional response”.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “As the members of the national security team meet to discuss this matter, they are considering a range of options.” The administration has several potentially powerful steps at its disposal.

The U.S. could impose further economic sanctions on North Korea, including applying even stricter restrictions on Pyongyang’s access to dollar-denominated trade, the desperately poor communist state’s economic lifeline to fuel, food and, crucially, weapons.

Rep. Ed Royce,(R) California, said, “If we block them from the international financial community, they can’t get the hard currency that they need in order to carry out the types of activities they are doing, as well as their nuclear weapons program.” This is a tactic the administration has applied with great effect against Iran regarding its nuclear program, and more recently, against Russia following its invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Naming and shaming North Korea publicly is another step, a move the U.S. took years to make with Beijing, despite multiple and systematic cyber attacks by China against U.S. businesses and government departments.

If U.S. investigators identify individuals behind the hack, the U.S. could also levy criminal charges against North Korean hackers. This is a step the U.S. took against an elite Chinese group of hackers earlier this year, sparking an angry response from Beijing.

So who are the culprits? U.S. investigators suspect a top-secret group within the North Korean military called – cryptically – Bureau 121, made up of at least 1,800 cyberwarriors scattered around the world.

Jim Lewis, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “One of the reasons you haven’t seen an aggressive U.S. response is we don’t know what they would do back, and we don’t want to start a second Korean war, and we don’t want to see cyber attacks that we can’t stop; so north Korea, not at the top of the league when it comes to cyber attack, not even as good as Iran, but very dangerous.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said, “At this point we are not prepared to officially say who we believe was behind this attack. I will say this; we do regard the attack on Sony as very serious. It involves an attack not only on that company and its personell, but also on freedoms we enjoy in this country. The freedom of artists and entertainers to produce movies, and the freedom of American citizens to go see movies. So, the U.S. government is actively considering a range of options that will take in response to this attack.”

So what about a retaliatory cyber attack? That is a response the U.S. is extremely wary of, fearing it could start a dangerous and escalating cycle of cyber attack and counter-attack, and perhaps military action. There is some concern about renewed efforts to test a missile or, at worst, a nuclear weapon, but so far not seeing any of the preparations you would see before such a step.

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