‘Terrorism’ Hysteria over Sony Hack

Some U.S. moviegoers say they are standing up to North Korean “cyber-terrorism” by going to see Sony’s “The Interview,” a comedy that makes light of assassinating real-life leader Kim Jong-un. But the furor over a retaliatory hack of Sony has the look of just the latest U.S. hysteria, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The suspected hack by North Korea into the computer system of an American movie company has gotten a lot of people excited without a lot of thinking about the significance, or lack of it, of what has happened and without addressing some longstanding conceptual problems that have plagued discussions related to terrorism.

The problems persist even if we simplify matters by accepting the widespread assumption that the North Korean regime did in fact perpetrate the hack, an assumption that, based on public knowledge to date, is not necessarily correct.

A poster from Sony's "The Interview" starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.

A poster from Sony’s “The Interview” starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.

It appears that the net effect of the electronic intrusion has been to delay release of a movie, not usually the stuff of which national security crises are made, or should be made. Some of those who are agitated about the incident refer to subsequent bellicose-sounding statements from the North Korean regime that, while denying responsibility for the computer intrusion, refer angrily to the same movie.

Some of what that regime is said to have said in the current instance regarding threats against the United States it did not really say. Besides, Pyongyang makes bellicose-sounding statements, including ones specifically directed at the United States, all the time.

Perhaps some of those alarmed about this latest incident believe that the successful hack demonstrates a capability as well as a willingness to inflict more substantial harm on Americans who go to see the movie that the North Korean regime does not want them to see.

The imagined scenario might involve something like North Korean hackers taking over the electronics of movie theaters in the United States and somehow manipulating the climate control system to have debilitating or lethal consequences on people in the audience. As ridiculous as such a scenario is, it is not improbable that such images are affecting the thinking of some Americans worrying about what North Korea might do, because this kind of fancifulness has roots in a larger tradition of American thinking about terrorism.

There has been fascination, dating at least back to the 1990s, with possible unconventional methods of terrorist attack, which is to say use of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) means or anything having to do with cyber capabilities. And such hypothetical means do indeed make for fascinating scenarios.

The sheer sexiness of the subject fires the imagination. That fascination has led to grossly disproportionate attention in commentary and alarmism about terrorism using CBRN and cyber methods, disproportionate when compared to the ways terrorists actually have been harming people.

An example of this misplaced focus and how long it has been around was an article that President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, wrote 16 years ago along with John Deutch, another former deputy secretary of defense, and Philip Zelikow, who supervised writing of the 9/11 commission report.

The danger the authors wanted to warn us about was that “terrorists may gain access to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices, germ dispensers, poison gas weapons, and even computer viruses.” All of their imaginative hypothetical examples involved the use of either CBRN or cyber techniques. They argued that the big divide between, on one hand, terrorism we really ought to worry about more and would be “catastrophic,” and on the other hand conventional terrorism which the authors assured us was already getting sufficient attention, was whether or not such unconventional techniques or weapons were used.

The 9/11 attacks, which had nothing whatever to do with either cyber methods or CBRN capabilities, demonstrated how mistaken that analysis was. Nothing terrorists have done in the years since then suggests that the analysis is any less misdirected. And yet, the fascination continues, as do mistaken attributions of newness to threats that fit the fascinating mold.

Thus, for example, David Rothkopf tells us this week that “we are at a critical juncture in the dawning days of the cyber era,” that we need “to start writing a new playbook” on foreign policy because of cyber threats, and that in response to the Sony Pictures incident we ought to be talking about using not just cyberattacks but even military action against North Korea. Sen. John McCain, not to be outdone by anyone when it comes to talking about getting involved in wars, said the presumed North Korean hack of Sony was “the manifestation of a new form of warfare.”

Another old terrorism-related issue that the Sony matter has raised concerns the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. President Barack Obama says he will review whether there is reason to put North Korea back on the list. Such a review would be appropriate insofar as it actually focuses on terrorism. The state sponsor designation has been one of the most abused listings the U.S. government promulgates, with most of the listings and delistings, under several different administrations, having little or nothing to do with terrorism.

Cuba’s remaining on the list long after ceasing to be involved in anything that could be considered sponsorship of terrorism has been a glaring anomaly, although one that may be corrected in the course of implementing the President’s initiative on Cuba. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was moved off and on the list for reasons other than any change in Iraq’s terrorism-related behavior; it came off during the Reagan administration as part of the U.S. tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and it was put back on when Saddam invaded Kuwait.

North Korea perpetrated very nasty terrorism back in the 1980s but remained on the list for many years after it had stopped doing anything of the sort. When the George W. Bush administration removed it from the list six years ago the real reason had to do not with terrorism but with circumstances associated with the nuclear weapons issue.

Although the fascination with hypothetical cyber shenanigans as a terrorist tool, and the entrenchment of the term cyberterrorism in the language, provide an impetus for labeling the presumed North Korean action against Sony Pictures as terrorism, there surely is a case to be made for maintaining a clear distinction, in terminology as well as in responses, between actions that delay a movie’s release and ones that have the more material effects commonly associated with terrorism.

Another reason for pause in applying the label of terrorism to what has occurred, and no doubt a reason the Obama administration is pausing before applying it, is to think about what the United States, or countries the United States calls allies, have done or might do with their own cyber capabilities overseas. If one action is to be called terrorism, then so must the other.

This gets to an asymmetry that has kept us Americans from fully coming to terms with how we and others use state-sanctioned violence for political purposes. The most common conceptions of terrorism mostly correspond to the legal U.S. definition that is used for another one of those official lists (the one for foreign terrorist organizations).

That definition refers to politically motivated violence conducted against noncombatants by either a nonstate organization or clandestine agents of a state. Most of the politically motivated violence that we, or our purported allies, practice (much of which affects noncombatants, sometimes in very bloody ways) is conducted openly as military operations. Others may not have that opportunity, either because of weakness in military capabilities or lack of recognition as a state, or both.

So we get to apply the label of terrorism to the other guy’s politically motivated violence but don’t have to apply it to our own, or perhaps to that of a putative ally. A distinction is made in semantics, even if not in morality or material effects. But if we apply the label to any hostile cyber operations in a foreign country and have conducted any such operations ourselves, we lose that convenient terminological asymmetry.

Of course, one could follow McCain’s approach of simply calling everything war, but that leads to two other observations. One is that if we have conducted hostile cyber operations not in response to anything that could be called either terrorism or war but instead in response to something else (such as, say, a nuclear program we don’t happen to like), then we would have to say we started a war. (And is that any better than initiating other forms of politically motivated violence?)

The other observation is that if we are in a state of war any time a hacker goes after a movie he doesn’t happen to like and affects its box office receipts, we are in worse trouble than any of us thought.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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10 comments for “‘Terrorism’ Hysteria over Sony Hack

  1. MrK
    December 30, 2014 at 4:17 am

    Straight from the RAND Corporation (RAND is suppsed to stand for Research ANd Development or R&D).

    Bruce Bennett advised ‘The Interview’, according to various sources. In his own words:

    (RAND) Is the North Korean Regime Out of Control?
    by Bruce W. Bennett

    The North Korean regime has decried U.S. allegations that it is behind the cyber attacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment. But is the attack North Korea’s latest international provocation, about which the North Korean denial is a lie, or is it another sign that the regime is spinning out of control?

    Evidence compiled by the FBI and other U.S. government organizations points clearly toward North Korean involvement. But it is impossible to know if top leaders of the Kim Jong-un regime sanctioned the attack, or if it was carried out by some other part of the government without the leadership’s knowledge and consent.

    More…

  2. December 27, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    I submitted a comment with a lot of links that was held for moderation for over 24 hours.

    What was weird is not that Sony emails where dumped but the most damaging emails were published something someone without cultural insight of the west was incapable of to the point that David Seaton claimed only the Russians could have done it, in his The Sony hack (warning pure speculation follows)

    However Moonies, Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church., has been heavily involved in supporting running errands and interpreting things for North Korea as they slowly try to take over. I w ish I could post the links. You may be able to Google many of the pertinent documentation links by googling my comment the last comment in Paul R. Pillar’s, ‘Terrorism’ Hysteria over Sony Hack

    More important then the present conflict was the attempt to get Romney elected, the movie “The Innocent of Muslims”. Amazingly no right-wing American was killed in the riots, who would have had relatives that would have cheered Ronny’s attempts to use the Benghazi attack. We can closer to a war between civilizations, that extremists on both sides crave, then most think.

  3. Regina Schulte
    December 27, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    I question the sanity of SONY in producing this movie portraying the violent assassination of an immature and unstable dictator of a nation with nuclear
    capabilities. The fact that it is comedic satire adds even more to the irresponsibility
    of SONY in this matter. The western nations and North Korea have been maintaining a “stand-off” and then SONY idiocy comes out with this movie depicting his violent killing by western assassinators. Then for Obama to even think of imposing sanctions on North Korea over this is totally wrong-headed.

    How would the US react if the players in this movie were reversed and portrayed Pres Obama getting his head blown off? Would we tolerate that as mere comedy?

    • Bill Bodden
      December 27, 2014 at 1:49 pm

      I question the sanity of SONY in producing this movie

      Sony is in business to make money and catering to the lowest denominator is usually an efficient means to that end. In most of corporate America morality, ethics and social responsibility are not factors in making business decisions.

  4. December 27, 2014 at 3:17 am

    Wherever the line should be drawn over what is legal, if someone wrote a comedy over the plan to kill a beloved celebratory, most wouldn’t call it funny: the Queen of England: the Pope: the wives of US soldiers or police officers: Someone insulted over the first minority President: Or even Santa Clause. The porn flick on the Prophet Mohammed should also lead to disgust in reasonable people, anything otherwise is leading to a more lawless world.

    North Korea is obviously extremely frightened over the threat, and it would be a mistake to say they clearly won’t involved. But the sophistication in understanding of our culture is beyond them. Material wasn’t just dumped em masse. What hurts got prominence to the point that David Seaton think only the Russians would have such skill.
    http://my.firedoglake.com/blog/2014/12/21/the-sony-hack-warning-pure-speculation-to-follow/

    However Sun Mung Moon’s Moonies have been having extremely sophisticated input on Fox News and other outlets as well as their Washington Times Newspaper and UPI. They been giving massive aid to North Korea as they try to be in charge some day. Even aiding Kim Jong Un when he was a young boy before he became President,
    https://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/jang-song-taek-delivers-floral-wreath-and-condolence-message-to-family-members-of-the-rev-sun-myung-moon/
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/9527328/Unification-Church-successor-makes-surprise-visit-to-North-Korea.html
    http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/09/sun-myung-moons-groundbreaking-campaign-to-open-north-korea/262057/
    http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2013/01/22/dprk-awards-citizenship-to-korean-american/
    http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2012/201209/news07/20120907-10ee.html
    http://www.tparents.org/Library/Unification/Talks/Park/Park-130122.pdf

    More important then the possibility of aiding North Korea in what to pick in a cyber-attack to try to protect the leader of North Korea against assassination is the Moonie (Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church) involvement in the Innocence of Muslims attempt to bait a war between civilizations. The only thing the Moonies likely wanted was to get Romney elected on the theory if Mormonism was considered mainstream Christianity the Unification Church would follow. When Romney began using the Benghazi attack in his campaign, the relatives of the dead Americans cried fowl. However, if one of the dead Americans was a right-winger with relatives who would have praised Romney’s response, it would have aided Romney’s Presidential campaign. We got extremely close to the war between civilizations that fanatics on both sides jointly want.

    North Korea has a right to be upset and fearful, though some negative western response at this point is also necessary. Let’s zero in on who helped the North Koreans, or did things to ingratiate themselves with them.

    Let’s stop confusing the need to allow certain hateful speech to remain legal with in any way praising despicable practices, such as an insulting and possibly threatening so-called comedy.

    The following is no longer listed on My.Firedoglake but can still be clicked on,
    http://firedoglake.com/2014/12/26/over-easy-who-hacked-sony-maybe-not-north-korea/
    http://firedoglake.com/2014/12/26/over-easy-who-hacked-sony-maybe-not-north-korea/#comment-2671801

    PS I wish I could post this expanded as an article on Consortium News

  5. December 27, 2014 at 2:44 am

    Wherever the line should be drawn over what is legal, if someone wrote a comedy over the plan to kill a beloved celebratory, most wouldn’t call it funny: the Queen of England: the Pope: the wives of US soldiers or police officers: Someone insulted over the first minority President: Or even Santa Clause. The porn flick on the Prophet Mohammed should also lead to disgust in reasonable people, anything otherwise is leading to a more lawless world.

    North Korea is obviously extremely frightened over the threat, and it would be a mistake to say they clearly won’t involved. But the sophistication in understanding of our culture is beyond them. Material wasn’t just dumped em masse. What hurts got prominence to the point that David Seaton think only the Russians would have such skill.
    http://my.firedoglake.com/blog/2014/12/21/the-sony-hack-warning-pure-speculation-to-follow/

    However Sun Mung Moon’s Moonies have been having extremely sophisticated input on Fox News and other outlets as well as their Washington Times Newspaper and UPI. They been giving massive aid to North Korea as they try to be in charge some day. Even aiding Kim Jong Un when he was a young boy before he became President,
    https://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/jang-song-taek-delivers-floral-wreath-and-condolence-message-to-family-members-of-the-rev-sun-myung-moon/
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/9527328/Unification-Church-successor-makes-surprise-visit-to-North-Korea.html
    http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/09/sun-myung-moons-groundbreaking-campaign-to-open-north-korea/262057/
    http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2013/01/22/dprk-awards-citizenship-to-korean-american/
    http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2012/201209/news07/20120907-10ee.html
    http://www.tparents.org/Library/Unification/Talks/Park/Park-130122.pdf

    More important then the possibility of aiding North Korea in what to pick in a cyber-attack to try to protect the leader of North Korea against assassination is the Moonie (Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church) involvement in the Innocence of Muslims attempt to bait a war between civilizations. The only thing the Moonies likely wanted was to get Romney elected on the theory if Mormonism was considered mainstream Christianity the Unification Church would follow. When Romney began using the Benghazi attack in his campaign, the relatives of the dead Americans cried fowl. However, if one of the dead Americans was a right-winger with relatives who would have praised Romney’s response, it would have aided Romney’s Presidential campaign. We got extremely close to the war between civilizations that fanatics on both sides jointly want.

    North Korea has a right to be upset and fearful, though some negative western response at this point is also necessary. Let’s zero in on who helped the North Koreans, or did things to ingratiate themselves with them.

    Let’s stop confusing the need to allow certain hateful speech to remain legal with in any way praising despicable practices, such as an insulting and possibly threatening so-called comedy.

    The following is no longer listed on My.Firedoglake but can still be clicked on,
    http://firedoglake.com/2014/12/26/over-easy-who-hacked-sony-maybe-not-north-korea/
    http://firedoglake.com/2014/12/26/over-easy-who-hacked-sony-maybe-not-north-korea/#comment-2671801

    PS I wish I could post an article on Consortium News

  6. Acomfort
    December 26, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    The only thing I take as fact about this story is that Sony made a movie called “The Interview.”
    That Sony was hacked . . . Maybe.
    Hacked by North Korea . . . Very unlikely.
    A PR stunt giving the U.S. a chance to demonize North Korea . . . Very likely.
    Remember WMDs?
    Remember the man in a cave who got the US military to stay out of the way while he brought down the NY Towers?
    Repetition by the MSM does not replace facts and evidence.
    Until we are shown the evidence or proof, don’t don’t believe a word this Govt. says and the MSM promotes.

    • Regina Schulte
      December 27, 2014 at 11:49 am

      I totally agree.

    • December 28, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      I agree.
      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, writes Finian Cunningham.
      Accusations of brainwashing and authoritarian state control leveled 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.
      http://www.veteransnewsnow.com/2014/12/28/513476-us-thought-control-goes-into-loop-over-sony-hollywood-hack/

  7. Bill Bodden
    December 26, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    The brouhaha over the Sony hack has also been beneficial for the CIA and its supporters by focusing people’s attention on Sony and “The Interview” and away from the torture report.

Comments are closed.