The hysterical over-reaction in the US to the hacking of computers at Sony is worthy of a satirical movie in itself. A case of art imitating life, or maybe vice versa.
North Korea – the «Axis of Evil» – has been roundly blamed for the Hollywood cyber-attack by US President Barack Obama, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the corporate news media. Obama called it «a national security threat» while hothead politicians like Senator John McCain declared that North Korea had committed «an act of war».
Meetings have reportedly been hastily convened in the White House Situation Room to get a handle on the problem, which has resulted in movie theatres dropping the nationwide screening of a new film poking fun at North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. (Forgotten in all the hype is the distasteful storyline of how the CIA plots the murder of a living head of state.)
Media pundits and celebrity actors like George Clooney have issued shrill statements labelling the hacking debacle as «an attack on free speech».
We can imagine how far hallowed American free speech would be tolerated if a foreign country made a movie which «satirically» depicts the assassination of Barack Obama.
A spokesman for the US Department of Homeland Security said: «The cyber-attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment was not just an attack against a company and its employees, it was also an attack on our freedom of expression and way of life».
Last Friday, Obama stated categorically that the sabotage at Hollywood giant Sony and the subsequent pulling of the movie lampooning North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was the malicious work of the communist state. Obama said the FBI had the evidence, without specifying what that alleged evidence was.
The president told his end-of-year press briefing: «We cannot have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States… That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about».
With sinister hint, Obama vowed that the US would retaliate. «We will respond, we will respond proportionally, and in a place and time that we choose».
The trouble is that there is absolutely no evidence to impute North Korea for the crime. The North Korean government has condemned the movie, The Interview, and Pyongyang may have welcomed the sabotage of Sony, which has been claimed by the self-declared hacker group, the Guardians of Peace. But the Korean state has flatly denied any involvement in the cyber-attack.
North Korea has even proposed conducting a joint investigation with the US authorities into the incident, which Washington predictably rejected. A spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council instead reiterated that «there is high confidence» that the Koreans did it.
This is presumably the same «high confidence» that the US authorities have expressed about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Syrian chemical weapons and latterly «Russia’s invasion» of eastern Ukraine.
Several US-based computer experts have also expressed skepticism towards the mainstream notion that North Korea is responsible. Some have noted that the behaviour of the hackers does not conform to the accusations. They point out that the most controversial clip in the movie – the assassination scene – was briefly posted online, before being taken down. That contradicts the claim that the offended North Koreans did it. Why would they insult their «Dear Leader» with such an irreverent release, even briefly?
Also, as one commentator put it, the Guardians of Peace group seem to be «jerking Sony around» with mercurial, switching demands made through the internet since the hacking intrusion surfaced on November 24. That shifting behaviour is typical of private hackers, not the actions of a tightly controlled state agency, and especially not an agency belonging to the authoritarian North Korean regime where hackers would be following rigid instructions.
Another contradictory factor, which is even acknowledged in the US mainstream media, is that North Korea does not have sophisticated internet connectivity. The computer hacking of Sony involved massive amounts of data, including unreleased movie scripts, company business logs and private communications with thousands of employees, as well as personal data on Hollywood celebrities and other industry figures. That kind of penetration would require high-speed cyber-infrastructure and connection, which the North Koreans are widely believed not to have.
North Korea is accused previously of hacking into banks and government institutions in South Korea last year. The North Korea link to that incident was never proven, but it is being invoked now as precedent evidence of the current Sony attack. Unproven allegation on top of unproven allegation does not amount to fact or meet a legal burden of proof.
US-based political analyst Randy Martin, who specialises in computer security issues and writes at www.buzzardsbranch.org, says that the suspected malware used in the Sony attack is widely available to all sorts of hackers. «There are plenty of hackers out there in the cyber-world, including criminal gangs and other state actors, such as Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, that could have done this hack on Sony and pinned it on North Korea to cover their own digital fingerprints».
Martin added that the FBI’s stated «high confidence» of North Korean responsibility was not convincing. «The FBI has nothing on the skills and techniques being used out in cyber-world. The bureau’s supposed greatness at investigating cyber-crime is a figment of its own imagination».
The «Destover" malware reportedly used in cracking the Sony computers is also believed to have been used to penetrate other countries and companies. A couple of years ago, the Saudi state oil company Aramco was hacked into by a version of Destover, and North Korea was not implicated in that attack.
However, that lack of evidence has not stopped Washington and the corporate media from charging ahead with sensational allegations against North Korea. The New York Times reported at the weekend: «The Obama administration has sought China’s help in recent days in blocking North Korea’s ability to launch cyber-attacks, the first steps toward the «proportional response» President Obama vowed to make the North pay for the assault on Sony Pictures — and as part of a campaign to issue a broader warning against future hacking, according to senior administration officials».
Note how the newspaper states as fact that North Korea carried out the attacks. The journalists seem to have censored the word «alleged» from their lexicon.
The Times added without the slightest reservation or qualification: «As part of the [Obama] administration effort to plan a response to the first major, state-sponsored destructive computer-network attacks on American soil, the president has asked the military’s Cyber Command, which is led by the same four-star admiral who directs the National Security Agency, to come up with a range of offensive options that could be directed at North Korea».
One potential target for retaliatory US action is Yongbyon, the centre of North Korea’s nuclear program, notes the New York Times.
This rush to blame North Korea is a reckless provocation. It is getting into the «realm beyond stupid» said cyber security expert Peter W Singer in an interview with the US-based online journal Motherboard. We are going to war based on a computer hack with no evidence, he added.
So what is going on here?
There are several other explanations that are far more plausible than North Korean culpability.
One is that Sony is reeling from the embarrassment and potential lawsuits from a host of complainants, ranging from panicky employees to disgruntled Hollywood divas. Already the company is being sued by eight former employees who are aggrieved that their private information has been published online by the hackers.
Sony has not openly accused North Korea of «cyber terrorism» but seems to be willing to go along with the media stampede accusing that state. That narrative suits the entertainment company as it can hide behind the North Korea scapegoat instead of being litigated over its own sloppy corporate security system. The Hollywood firm has reportedly incurred more than 50 other major computer breaches in recent years and has long been criticised for not taking adequate protective measures.
Another issue is that Americans are unwitting victims of their own state propaganda. North Korea has been pilloried as a «rogue state» for decades and its leader Kim Jong-Un is caricatured as an archetypal villain worthy of a James Bond movie. With this inculcated American dehumanisation of North Korea as an «international pariah», it is all too easy to launch into the hysterical fear-mongering that we are now witnessing over the Sony hack and terror threats to movie theatres for screening The Interview. The film was due to premier in American cinemas on December 25, but has since been dropped.
Accusations of brainwashing and authoritarian state control levelled at North Korea can just as easily apply to the American public given the massive orchestration of popular perception by US news media, Washington and its closely aligned Hollywood infotainment industry.
US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are typically sold to the American public based on fraudulent claims of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and human rights – when these wars are simply criminal imperialist adventurism. America’s permanent state of so-called War on Terror has also primed the US public to live in a constant siege mentality and fear of foreign enemies, no matter how outlandish.
Witness the ongoing US media assault on Syria, or Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Without a shred of evidence, Russia is accused of expansionism, aggression, and of threatening the international order. Russian President Vladimir Putin is denigrated as the «new Hitler». Tragically, and stupendously, many Americans believe this propaganda trash churned out day-in, day-out by supposedly «free, independent media».
A crime story at Sony carried out by hackers for extortion or just kicks is transformed into a major national security threat posed by North Korea purely on the basis of innuendo and baseless assertion. Is that not the most audacious manifestation of thought-control and manufacturing of perception?
Obama conceitedly deprecates «a dictator somewhere cannot impose censorship» and thought-control «here in the United States». «That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about».
Obama and his ilk in Washington and the American mainstream media are so deluded with their own self-righteous sense of freedom and «exceptionalism». Thought-control is exactly what America is about, as is all too plain to see from the hysteria over the Sony hack and the demonisation of North Korea.