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The U.S. Says North Korea Ordered The Sony Hack. How Do We Respond?

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

North Korea is centrally involved with the cyber attack on Sony Pictures. That's the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials who've been trying to trace the hackers who launched an attack last month. The news comes after Sony's announcement today that it will not move forward with the studio's Christmas-day release of the comedy "The Interview," which portrays the assassination of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. That movie's been at the center of a sprawling real-life drama that includes hackers making terrorist threats, secret documents being leaked, and lots of tawdry Hollywood gossip. For more on this, we're joined by New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger who's been following this story.

And, David, specifically what is U.S. intelligence saying about North Korea's involvement in this hacking of Sony Pictures?

DAVID SANGER: Well, Melissa, you know, attribution of cyber attacks is very difficult. You know, it's not like the old days of the Cold War where you can go into a mountain deep in Colorado someplace and see on a big map as a missile is being a launched from, you know, the middle of the Soviet Union. An attack of a cyber nature can be bounced from one server to another, and the Sony attacks were. Some of the servers they came from came out of Bulgaria. Some came out of Singapore. They were every place but North Korea. So tracking this back is difficult stuff, and in this case it seems to have worked.

In the end, the administration officials who I spoke to on this issue sounded much more definitive that this was North Korea than they usually do, which means that they must have found a way to trace this back to orders that were given in Pyongyang. Whether they did that through human sources, whether they did it through electronic sources is hard to know.

But it's certainly the case that the administration now faces another problem which is, what do you do? How do you punish a country for this that's already the most sanctioned nation on earth?

BLOCK: Would you expect to hear the Obama administration publicly talking about this and addressing this question of a response?

SANGER: I think that they are actively considering whether to publicly discuss it. And now we've run in the Times and some other news organizations say they've reached this conclusion, there's probably a little more pressure on them to do so. But if you do publicly discuss it, it then raises the question, so what do you do about it? And my guess is they wouldn't publicly raise the accusation until they come up with what they think is a workable plan.

BLOCK: It sounds like, based on your reporting, David, in The New York Times, that what folks are telling you is that this is a hack unlike anything they have quite seen before.

SANGER: It is, and for two reasons, Melissa. First of all, you know, in Target or Home Depot, that was to grab credit card numbers, right? We have seen hacks that were designed to steal corporate design information - the Chinese hacks and say they get the F-35 design. We've seen American hacks that stop programs that - like the Iranian nuclear program that they feel could cause a national security problem. Of course, the U.S. has never acknowledged that, but that was the biggest use of a cyber weapon that we know about. This one was aimed at extortion, and it was aimed at achieving a political objective, which was getting the movie pulled. And you know what? The North Koreans succeeded at that.

BLOCK: OK, David. Thanks very much.

SANGER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: David Sanger is national security correspondent with The New York Times. We were talking about the hacking of Sony Pictures and American intelligence officials now saying that North Korea is behind that cyber attack. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.