This week’s news has been dominated by stories surrounding the hack of SONY Pictures’s servers and threats surrounding the imminent release of the film The Interview (reviewed here!). Amid all of the stories planted by the hackers and leaked as a result of the hack, there has been one glaring one that has not been reported that I have been waiting for: SONY executives had to know of the risk in making The Interview . . . and they disregarded it entirely.
The Interview is a film starring James Franco and Seth Rogen with a basic premise that Americans visiting North Korea for business are conscripted by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un. About a month ago, SONY Pictures Studios’s servers were hacked and after digitally-releasing at least four of the studio’s films online, the hackers began to leak e-mails and other private information they stole from the servers to mainstream media and online sources. While North Korea initially denied being the hackers, after the hackers threatened an attack on movie theaters that showed The Interview, the United States government claimed that North Korean sources were responsible for both the threat and the hack. The Interview was subsequently pulled from SONY’s Christmas release roster.
Red Flags In The Backstory
When the SONY hack became a major news story, virtually anyone with any intelligence and insight had to notice some gaping holes in the story of the hack and where blame was being spread. While North Koreans were almost instantly scapegoats for the hack, when they denied involvement, but praised the attack, there were certain questions that remained unanswered in the media. If North Koreans were responsible for the hack, they had to be North Koreans that were fluent in English. Supposedly, the hack occurred on November 24, when SONY personnel turned on their computers to a message warning that more damage to the company was to come. It took about a week for the hackers to start releasing more information taken from SONY.
That makes perfect sense; if you’ve just stolen a treasure trove of information in a foreign language, you need some time to sift through the data to figure out what will be useful (i.e. damaging or damning) in ruining your target. A quick online search estimates that the percentage of North Koreans who are fluent in English range from 1 – 10%. One has to believe that the number of North Koreans who are both expert hackers and fluent in English would be well-below 1% and if the motive was protecting the head of state of North Korea, that number has to be pretty small. So, if the U.S. intelligence community was looking at suspects in North Korea, it seems like their pool would have been ridiculously small.
As information from the hack continued to disseminate, it became more and more clear that The Interview was the source of ire for the hackers. But, even in releasing internal documents with executives panning The Interview showed a level of consideration to what the hackers were releasing . . . and it makes one wonder just what kind of publicity machine SONY actually has working for it.
I write that for multiple reasons, but the chief among them are these: if one wanted to ruin The Interview, releasing it for free would have been a pretty decent way. Hackers who released The Expendables 3 (reviewed here!) online this past summer have been credited with causing that sequel’s grosses to take a noticeable hit. Or, if hackers truly wanted to stop The Interview from being released, the hack of SONY’s servers should have targeted the digital copies of The Interview and destroyed them!
Second, SONY has not leaked what should have been its ace card on the matter: the hack of SONY’s servers and subsequent release of private e-mails illustrates that virtually every conversation at the company is fairly well-documented. What is missing from all the leaked documents are any executives who said anything to the effect of, “Hey guys, I read the treatment for The Interview and I’ve got to ask . . . should we really be pissing off the North Koreans by making this movie?” And the reason the hackers, if they truly were from North Korea, would not release those e-mails is because the two most-probable responses to them are: 1. “Who the fuck cares?! It’s North Korea, what are they going to do to us?!” and/or 2. “North Korea doesn’t have a leg to stand on; just last year, there were two blockbusters that dealt with terrorists attacking the White House” (White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen, reviewed here!). So, SONY’s affirmative defenses to threats against The Interview had to be that North Korea couldn’t touch the U.S. militarily and “we’ve already done movies that attack the heart of the U.S., so it’s not a big deal to have a screwball comedy about killing another country’s Head Of State.”
So, why hasn’t SONY leaked those e-mails to show they are not afraid and/or The Interview is hardly groundbreaking for its potential offensiveness?
The Logical Answer
When the hackers released a direct threat against theaters that showed The Interview, the United States government went from “actively investigating” the SONY hack to actually making statements and throwing around allegations. The intelligence community publicly accused North Korea and, while SONY’s problem has been not poking the bear, the intelligence community has reason to take the opposite tact. In intelligence, one does not give away anything one does not have to: you don’t let your enemy know you’ve cracked their codes and you try to keep your methodology as secret as possible. So, why is the intelligence community now publicly blaming North Korea? That surprised me quite a bit. In fact, while SONY’s approach could easily have been “We were worried about North Korea, until we realized their opinion didn’t matter,” the U.S. intelligence community’s approach should have – at best – been dismissive: “The Interview has been screened multiple places and there have been no attacks on any of those venues, so this seems like a fear tactic to us.”
And, in the e-mails or memos that have not been leaked, SONY executives would be right: North Korea does not have the ability to launch any sort of offensive that would destroy every movie theater screening The Interview. So, it begs the question, why capitulate to the hackers’ demands?
There are only two logical answers to capitulation at this point (considering the film is made and people have already seen it): the intelligence community in the United States has a credible threat or SONY’s executives are so gunshy that they are broken. Fear is a powerful motivator and certainly someone at SONY’s legal department figured out that the liability for attacks to theaters across the U.S. would be astronomical – like, enough to destroy the mega-corporation. But even if such attacks occurred and SONY was sued for liability, precedent shows that free speech is not to blame for violent attacks and the liable parties should be the attackers, not incidental department (suing SONY for any attacks that resulted from releasing The Interview would be analogous to suing the Department Of The Navy for building a base at Pearl Harbor . . . instead retaliating against the Japanese military for attacking the base there).
In Light Of It All. . .
So, that brings us to the second possibility and what it actually means. Right now, the hackers are bullies and SONY (and theater owners) are wusses. If North Korea is the source of the hack and the threat, SONY and theater owners are expected to believe that North Korea has the resources to blow up thousands of targets (the number of screens The Interview would have released on) simultaneously on Christmas Day. According to CIA sources from 2013, North Korean missile technology was only advanced enough to get missiles to the West Coast of the U.S. So, the threat from the hackers was either a bluff, North Korea has advanced its missile technology dramatically within the last year . . . or we are to believe that North Korea has a network of several thousand agents working in the United States who would have delivered the threatened explosives to the theaters when The Interview was released.
And here’s where American citizens should be outraged and have a course of action against the United States government: under any of those circumstances, our tax dollars are just being thrown away. According to usgovernmentspending.com, in 2014, $605 billion were spent on military defense (the deficit was some $483 billion). What the reaction to the SONY hack and alleged North Korean threats tells us is this: that is money poorly spent.
Let’s say the intelligence community is doing its job. The CIA and FBI have identified a credible threat. They say, “Hey, theater owners and SONY, we’d really appreciate it if you didn’t release this movie because North Korea is making threats and they can actually back them up.” That’s the job of the intelligence community. They find the threats and if it’s domestic, they arrest suspects to prevent them. If there were a massive terror network of potential North Korean bombers in the United States ready to actually blow up every theater that screened The Interview (despite the fact that they did not blow up any of the theaters that screened it already for press and potential audiences). Given how the media is all over this story and there have been no stories of arrests or interrogations around the country of North Korean nationals being rounded up by the CIA, logic suggests that the intelligence community discovered that North Koreans were responsible for the hack, but there is no network of bombers in the U.S. ready to blow up theaters here. They turn their intelligence over to the NSA, who shares it with the military.
At that point, the issue becomes a diplomatic and military matter. The diplomats should be saying “Hey, North Korea, you guys can’t just threaten us!” (albeit not the most receptive or rational audience in the world). The military, though, should be saying “before you can launch one missile, we will reduce your arsenal to ashes.” And we have a new Bay Of Pigs or another bloodbath in Asia. The reasons not to pursue a military option are either because it would not work or because it is not going to get the desired results (The Interview, North Korea attacks, the U.S. counter-attacks, China launches its missiles, WWIII, Armageddon). So, what does it mean that it would not work, then? Capitulating to North Korea, if the threats are coming from North Korea, as a military solution is a de facto admission that the U.S. military cannot defend the United States from North Korean missiles.
So then what are we paying our military for?
The United States is a big continent (just drive through Kansas!); taking the United States might be second only to taking and holding Russia in the world. North Korea does not have the military resources to launch a land war to take the U.S. and while it might have some missile resources that could harm the U.S., what are we paying the military for at this point if not to have such overwhelming might that even an egotistical dictator would think twice about attacking us? In order for any threat from the North Korean Head Of State to be deemed “credible,” one has to believe that enough of the high-ranking military officers in North Korea would also be willing to martyr themselves and have their nation reduced to ashes for that leaders vision. Is The Interview being buried because it hits too close to an actual CIA plan to take out Kim Jong-Un? That seems doubtful (the cat’s already out of the bag on the “how” of the assassination attempt in The Interview), so it inevitably points back to the idea that the U.S. military is unable to defeat North Korea without taking what they have already calculated as “acceptable losses.”
North Korea is a nation of approximately 24.45 million people and is about 60% the size of Kansas, located thousands of miles away from the continental United States. If it is a credible military threat to the United States then spending hundreds of billions of dollars on our military is a waste of money. I am a pacifist and I don’t think anyone should die to see a movie, certainly not The Interview (Cheap Thrills, maybe . . . ) and if North Korea could deliver on its threats then that should be taken seriously. But if our military cannot defend against North Korea, that’s just a jobs program that is not advancing anyone’s best interest. The $122 billion dollars spent on military defense (after eliminating the entire deficit of overspending that the military represents) represents $336 each and every American citizen living in the United States could be paid for health care, healthy food, or education. Hell, we could even use that money to go to the movies.
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© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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