Exclusive: The Obama administration has accused North Korea of hacking Sony in retaliation for “The Interview,” a goofball comedy about assassinating the country’s real-life leader, but the case may be another politicized rush to judgment by the U.S. government, writes James DiEugenio.
By James DiEugenio
One of the major problems with modern American democracy is the fact that the U.S. government has a serious credibility problem. This is not new of course. In its contemporary strain, it goes back at least to 1964 when two events focused and magnified the problem. The first was the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used to launch the Vietnam War. The second was the issuance of the Warren Report, the widely doubted official account of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
As Kevin Phillips demonstrated with polling results in his book Arrogant Capital, that year marked the beginning of a long decline in the public’s trust in the government’s ability to do what is right most of the time. Prior to that year, the number hovered in the mid-70 percentile. After that, the figure began to drop steeply. It bottomed out at 19 percent in 1992. (This was clearly a large factor in boosting the presidential candidacy of Ross Perot that year.) It has failed to recover in any significant way since.
Historically speaking, it’s easy to name some of the causes for this headlong slide into skepticism and disbelief: the escalation in Vietnam, the assassinations of key leaders during the 1960s, Watergate, the Iran/Contra affair, the exposure of CIA drug-running during wars in Southeast Asia and Central America.
As Nicolas JS Davies has pointed out, some more recent examples would be the false reasons for the invasion of Iraq, the dubious attribution of imminent nuclear weaponry for Iran, the attempt to accuse President Bashar al-Assad of Syria of using sarin gas against civilians, and the attempt to blame Russia for the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
As the reader can see, many of these instances involve the effort of certain reactionary members of the Executive Branch in Washington and their allies in the media to use the American military abroad. One would have thought that after the disastrous results of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the major media would investigate more carefully what now seems to be a recurrent pattern of ersatz attribution to provoke American intervention. But, by and large, the doubts about these events have been expressed only in the alternative media.
The final incident Davies (briefly) mentioned was last year’s computer hacking of Sony/Columbia studios, which the FBI blamed on North Korea. The ostensible reason for this cyber-attack was the upcoming release of the comedy film, The Interview, which depicted an interview by a fictional American TV personality with Kim Jong-un, the actual leader of North Korea.
This interview becomes a pretext for an assassination attempt that goes awry. But, as the movie unfolds, the interview does happen and Kim does not come off well in it. This causes him to try to kill the Americans responsible. It backfires and he is killed instead.
Perhaps no film since Oliver Stone’s JFK generated as much pre-release controversy as The Interview. But unlike Stone’s picture, which created a sensation over its contrary-to-the-Establishment view of President Kennedy’s assassination, this particular brouhaha is largely based upon the alleged cyber-attack by North Korea.
When the FBI pointed the finger at Pyongyang, Sony/Columbia decided not to release the film, citing security concerns. Both people in the film colony and in the media met that decision with much derision. Therefore, Columbia reconsidered and did a limited theatrical run for the film, combined with a large online release. Due to the massive coverage of the controversy, the latter has been a big success. In fact, it has set records in that category.
‘The Interview’ as a Movie
The movie was co-directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who also had a hand in writing the story. Along with James Franco, Rogen also stars in the film. Rogen and Goldberg have been friends since childhood in Vancouver, Canada. Rogen’s career took off after he moved to Los Angeles and met writer-director Judd Apatow, who produced Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and directed The 40 Year Old Virgin.
After first using Rogen in a TV series called Freaks and Geeks, Rogen starred in Apatow’s 2007 film Knocked Up. Apatow then produced two films written by Rogen and Goldberg, Pineapple Express and Superbad. Franco was also in Freaks and Geeks, and Pineapple Express with Rogen. Rogen and Goldberg then scripted The Green Hornet in 2011; they wrote and co-directed This Is the End in 2013.
Reportedly, Rogen once advised Apatow to make his work more “outrageously dirty.” [Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2007] And Apatow once said he wanted to include a penis in each of his films. [The Guardian. Aug. 26, 2008]
Well, we get those kinds of jokes in The Interview. The premise of the film revolves around Franco as a TV personality named Dave Skylark, the host of a rather lowbrow interview show titled Skylark Tonight. Rogen plays the producer-director of the program and has ambitions of doing something more socially and politically significant, a la 60 Minutes.
In one of the several unfathomable plot twists in the film, Kim likes Skylark Tonight so much that he wants to be a guest on the show and to arrange the guest spot through Rogen. But, in another hard to buy plot twist, Kim wants to arrange the interview in some sparsely populated rural area in China. (I think this segment was designed to generate laughs, which it does not.)
The visit to North Korea is now set up with a female military representative of Kim’s. Upon Rogen’s return, he and Franco celebrate and they announce the upcoming event on the air.
Now, another rather hard to believe strophe occurs. The CIA visits the two men and asks them to assassinate Kim. No specific reason is given as to why (though Kim is widely viewed in the West as a clownish and unstable dictator), or why they chose these two utter amateurs for such a daring, high-risk scheme.
The CIA wants them to kill Kim with a toxic poison attached to the palm of their hands. This strip is hidden in a pack of gum. But when they arrive in North Korea, one of their military guards takes out the pack and chews the strip. He spits it out, and in a rather unfunny follow-up, we later watch him die from the poison at a dinner.
Franco now meets Kim. The North Korean is on his best behavior and the two hit it off for a couple of days playing basketball and partying with some scantily clad girls.
Twisting the Plot
But now, another rather weird plot twist occurs. Franco wanders out of the presidential palace, going to what he thought was a grocery store nearby. He goes inside and discovers that the store is really a Potemkin village. That is, things like fruit and vegetables are really painted props.
Obviously, this scene is intended to highlight the shortage of food supplies in North Korea, but why the North Koreans would plant the store so close to the palace, why they would leave it unattended, and why they could not import real goods to stock it at this crucial time, these kinds of questions make this episode another head-scratcher. But the plot device explains why Franco turns on his new friend, Kim Jong-un.
In the meantime, Rogen has fallen for the female military attachÃ©. It turns out she secretly hates Kim and now allies herself with the Americans. She says they cannot just kill him; they must humiliate him on TV so the Korean people will see him as a pretentious buffoon and charlatan.
So, Franco/Skylark decides to structure the interview to expose Kim. But the station technicians cut the feed. Rogen and his girlfriend then pull out firearms, touching off a bloody fight in the control room also involving Korean troops. Somehow, the amateur Americans kill all the Koreans. Franco is shot at, but he survives because he had a bulletproof vest on.
The trio manages to escape in a tank (no, I won’t explain how that happened) and are pursued by Kim and some soldiers in a helicopter. Kim orders preparations for a nuclear launch. But the tank fires a heat-seeking missile that takes out the chopper. Some CIA double agents then help Rogen and Franco escape the country.
At the end, we see Franco at a book reading about the whole affair as Rogen talks to his North Korean girlfriend via Skype. She stayed behind to democratize the country.
As the reader can see, the story is pretty much escapist, goofball fiction with a plot focused on murdering a real-life leader. But as bad as the script is, the direction by Rogen and Goldberg is even worse.
The Decline of Comedy
In 1965, before he retired from the field, illustrious film critic Dwight MacDonald wrote an essay entitled “Whatever Happened to Hollywood Comedy?” There, he lamented how low the genre had fallen from the Alpine peaks attained by the likes of Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and Langdon. Or even from the hills of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks.
MacDonald outlined three rules that comic films he was reviewing broke almost systematically. First, he wrote that most of the films had no appealing comic protagonists, which he felt was necessary in the genre. Second, he said they were overproduced and too Rube Goldberg-like in their construction and depiction. (Rogen and Goldberg shoot the helicopter exploding at the end in super-slow-motion.)
Finally, according to MacDonald, the sadism inherent in comedy could not be shown realistically, i.e., if the comic actually broke his back while slipping on a banana peel, that would not be funny.
Well, in the fight in the control room in The Interview, we watch as not one, but two fingers get bitten off. Apparently, no one on the set said to Rogen, “Uh Seth, is that really funny?” Rogen is an even worse director than he is an actor. And the man can’t act.
If MacDonald felt gloomy about the state of film comedy in 1965, one can imagine what he would have written in later years, which leads us to the first question about the hacking mystery: Unless the North Koreans are as imbecilic as the people depicted in the film, could they really have thought that such a frivolous production somehow imperiled the security or image of their country and to such an extent that they went ahead and risked retaliation by hacking into a private company’s computer system?
To me, the risk simply does not equate with whatever reward was to be had. But there are other indications that the case against North Korea is not nearly as conclusive as the FBI wants us to think. President Barack Obama may have compounded the problem by announcing retaliatory sanctions on Jan. 2. Further, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest implied there would be more of this because he called it “the U.S. government’s first action”
The Facts of the Case
The controversy actually began to take shape last June when the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, without seeing the movie in all of its silliness, condemned the film and urged the United States to cancel its distribution. Clearly, making light of assassinating a nation’s leader is problematic, whatever one may think of the leader, and the North Koreans made their disgust clear.
Then, on Nov. 24, 2014, Columbia discovered that its computers had been hacked. Their employees were locked out and an ugly caricature of a bright red skeleton popped up on their screens that morning. A message appeared which said, “Hacked by #GOP.” Later, personal information, e-mails and unreleased films were leaked online. The films included Still Alice, Annie and To Write Love on Her Arms.
In this context, GOP does not refer to the Republican Party but to a hacking group that calls themselves the Guardians of Peace. It’s interesting to note that although North Korea denies the attack, Guardians of Peace takes credit for it. In fact, the Guardians actually called the FBI a bunch of idiots because of the stupidity of their investigation.
As Kim Zetter pointed out in Wired, nation-states usually don’t announce themselves with images of blazing skeletons or criticize their victims for having poor cyber security, nor do they post stolen data to Pastebin, which is sort of the unofficial warehouse for heisted files on the cloud.
As Zetter writes, “These are all hallmarks of hacktivists, groups like Anonymous and LulzSec, who thrive on targeting large corporations for ideological reasons or by hackers sympathetic to a political cause” (Wired, Dec. 17, 2014)
Cyber-security expert Marc Rogers agreed that the operation did not look like it was from a nation-state, and he criticized the FBI’s case on specific grounds, noting that because the malware was written in Korean means little, since programs exist to translate that code.
Rogers also said that whoever wrote the malware had extensive knowledge of hard-coded paths and passwords. This would suggest that whoever did the attack was somehow watching Sony/Columbia’s computer architecture for a long time or was a company insider because not only did the hackers know where certain files were located but they knew the access codes on them.
Third, Rogers wrote that when a hacker simply dumps this amount of material onto a public site, that has the earmarks of a hack job from some ideologically motivated group. There was much information North Korea could have garnered from the huge access they allegedly had. And this could have served them well in their intelligence files. Why make it public? (See Roger’s blog, “Marc’s Security Ramblings” entry dated Dec. 18, 2014)
Rogers is backed up on his first point by Kurt Stammberger, senior vice-president of Norse, a company that provides computer intelligence systems and technology to both private corporations and the government.
Stammberger has been in possession of the specific malware used in the Sony hack as far back as last July, which can be secured by interested parties on the black market. His sample of the program is totally in English, not a trace of Korean.
The executive noted that specific Sony credentials, server address and digital codes and certificates were then written into the malware. As another authority in the field noted, certain malware behaves erratically. It just dives into a system, shuffles around the computer and spirals around looking for things to link to randomly. The Sony hack was more like a cruise missile.
“This stuff was incredibly targeted. That is a very strong signal that an insider was involved,” said Stammberger. (New York Post, Dec. 30, 2014) Thus, he concluded that “It’s virtually impossible to get that information unless you are an insider, were an insider, or have been working with an insider. That’s why we and so many other security professionals are convinced an insider played an important role.”
Furthering this belief is the fact that, last spring, Sony issued layoff notices to hundreds of employees. A private Facebook group made up of former Sony employees voted by a large majority that the hack was an inside job. An ex-employee said what makes this even more possible is that Sony’s security was not very tight or sophisticated, a point that was echoed by Rogers. (Dana Liebelson, Huffington Post, Jan. 6, 2015)
In fact, Norse, Stammberger’s computer-intelligence company, went even further. They named a former employee as a suspect, along with five accomplices. They did this by going through hacked personnel files and then locating a disgruntled employee online. (The Security Ledger Dec. 18, 2014)
In one message, for instance, one of Stammberger’s suspects identified as “lena” wrote :“Sony doesn’t lock their doors, physically, so we worked with other staff with similar interests to get in. I’m sorry I can’t say more, safety for our team is important.” (The Wrap, Dec. 30, 2014)
From this and other evidence, Stammberger deduces that the conspiracy was a collaboration between an employee or employees terminated early last summer and a hacking group involved in distributing pirated movies online, a group that has been pursued by Sony.
The FBI visited Norse to hear this presentation and seemed suitably impressed. But Stammberger said the FBI didn’t reveal anything from its inquiry to Norse.
What makes the whole operation even more puzzling is the fact that an e-mail was sent to Sony executives three days before the hack became public, on Nov. 21, 2014, addressed to top executives such as CEO Michael Lynton and Chairperson Amy Pascal (among others). It reads:
“Monetary compensation we want. Pay the damages, or Sony Pictures will be bombarded as a whole. You know us very well. We never wait long. You’d better behave wisely.”
Clearly, the fact that this was sent in advance indicates that whoever sent it knew what was about to happen. But the warning contains no mention, not even a hint, about censoring an about-to-be-released movie. The message appears to be pure and simple extortion, as is clearly denoted in the first sentence about money.
But what makes this piece of evidence ultimately confusing is that it was signed by “God’sApstls,” a rubric that also was in one of the malicious files used in the cyber attack. (ibid)
As Wired’s Zetter points out, it was only on Dec. 8, a week after a logjam of media stories appeared linking the attack to North Korea, that the attackers made a reference to the film in one of their announcements. And after this, the hackers made oblique terrorist threats against the film’s premiere in New York on Christmas Day.
In other words, it was after the finger-waving at North Korea had begun that “the GOP” began to explicitly link the film to the crime. To top that, as Sam Biddle noted in The Gawker on Dec. 22, the self-declared attackers, “the GOP”, then released a message declaring that Sony/Columbia had their permission to release The Interview anyway, which certainly implies that whoever did the hacking was simply bluffing about any terrorist attacks if the film were shown.
Lessons Not Learned
This points out another interesting aspect of the case, which Peter Singer, another security expert, expounded on at Motherboard. In an interview, he said: “This is not just now a case study in how not to react to cyber threats and a case study in how not to defend your networks; it’s now also a case study in how not to respond to terrorism threats.
“We have just communicated to any would-be attacker that we will do whatever they want. It’s mind-boggling to me, particularly when you compare it to real things that have actually happened. Someone killed 12 people and shot another 70 people at the opening night of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. They kept that movie in the theater. You issue an anonymous cyber threat that you do not have the capability to carry out: We pulled a movie from 18,000 theaters.” (Sic, that number is exaggerated.)
Singer said whoever conducted the attack understood the American psyche and culture to the point of knowing that politicians like John McCain and Newt Gingrich would call it an attack of “cyber terrorism” and demand retaliation and that no one would ask: Why?
Would North Korea really commit its scarce resources and take this geopolitical risk over a witless, very bad comedy and think that a fitting retaliation would be to publicize how much money Sony executives make or that producer Scott Rudin thinks Angelina Jolie is only marginally talented?
Gauging by the U.S. overreaction, one is reminded of what Orson Welles did with a radio microphone, four actors, and some mood music in 1938 with his broadcast of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
Singer added that this image of Sony/Columbia as a frightened and intimidated victim benefits the company because it conceals the fact that it has been hacked before, going back to 2005, and more than once.
Yet, their whole computer architecture has been relatively unchanged, even though the previous hacks were not labeled as attacks from a nation-state. It’s fairly clear that Sony did not take the attacks seriously enough to do a major upgrade on their security system or to change passwords and pass codes every few months. Obviously, they could afford the financial outlay to do such things.
On the day the FBI announced North Korea as the culprit, President Obama criticized Sony’s initial decision to pull the film from theaters. Echoing what Singer said, the President commented: “We cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship here in the USA. If somebody can intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical comedy, imagine what they’ll do when they see a documentary or political film they don’t like.”
He continued in this vein, “That’s not what we are, that’s not what America is about. I’m sympathetic that some private company was worried about liabilities. I wish they’d spoken to me first. Do not get into a pattern in which we’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”
Obama did not seem aware of the irony, either in regards to his own participation in actual assassinations, i.e., “targeted killings” via drone attacks, or his administration’s aggressive effort to silence U.S. government whistleblowers through criminal prosecutions, examples of real censorship.
In response to Obama’s expressed disappointed that Sony had not come to him for help, Sony CEO Michael Lynton contradicted this observation the same day it was made on Dec. 19. In a statement made on CNN, the executive said, “We definitely spoke to a senior advisor in the White House about the situation. The White House was certainly aware of the situation.”
Lynton added that Sony consulted with the State Department before the hacking to anticipate any political controversy the film could provoke. But Lynton went even further, saying Sony went to think tanks, foreign policy authorities, and the State Department “to get an understanding of whether or not there was a problem” with the film. The CEO said he was told by all that there was no problem, so they proceeded with the advertising rollout of the film.
Lynton said it really was not Sony that pulled the film from theatrical release but rather too many major exhibitors refused to show the film for fear of possible terrorist attacks. He concluded that he “had no alternative but to not proceed with the theatrical release on the 25th of December.” (Deadline, Dec. 19, 2014)
Weighing the Evidence
Of course, it is possible that these accusations against North Korea are correct. However, as of today, there is a large body of expert opinion that says the evidence so far is lacking. In fact, another expert, Robert Graham of Errata Security, was even more unimpressed than Rogers, calling the FBI’s evidence “nonsense.” (New York Post, Dec. 30, 2014)
If that is so, then the Sony hack may end up joining the long line of instances in which the U.S. government either jumped to misguided conclusions or intentionally misled the American people. Meanwhile, the real culprits escape and the real facts become harder to ascertain since the U.S. government hates to admit mistakes especially when the falsely accused have been thoroughly demonized and have few defenders.
If the truth is discovered many years down the line, the major news media usually ignores it or, in the rare case that the truth is acknowledged and accepted, it is way past the time for avoiding dangerous actions rationalized by the false allegations.
It took Professor Edwin Moise three decades to produce the definitive book on the Tonkin Gulf incident, showing that just about everything President Lyndon Johnson said about what happened there was wrong. By then, millions of Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were dead.
James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.