WASHINGTON — A White House official said on Thursday that the administration was considering a “proportional response” against those who hacked into Sony Pictures computers, a retaliation that could thrust the United States into a direct confrontation with North Korea.
Officials would not describe what such a response might entail, but they stressed that the episode had become a major concern at the upper levels of government, including President Obama, who lately has been discussing the issue with aides every day.
“This is something that’s being treated as a serious national security matter,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters. “There is evidence to indicate that we have seen destructive activity with malicious intent that was initiated by a sophisticated actor.”
United States officials have privately concluded that North Korea was “centrally involved” in the hacking even as Sony canceled the release of a comedy that features the fictional assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un, and that apparently prompted the cyberattack. Mr. Earnest would not confirm the North Korean role at his daily briefing but he did not deny it either, saying that investigators would ultimately report on their findings.
Mr. Earnest said the government did not tell Sony to pull the film, “The Interview,” and expressed support for the studio’s right to make it, even if it would offend some viewers.
“The United States stands squarely on the side of artists and companies that want to express themselves,” he said, “and we believe that that kind of artistic expression is worthy of expression and is not something that should be subjected to intimidation just because you happen to disagree with the views.”
But he was vague about what kind of action the United States might take in response to the cyberattack and even hinted that it may be of a character that was hard to publicly detect. He added that the president and his team would take into consideration that its authors might be trying to stir a response to get attention, a calculation often imputed by Washington to North Korea’s mercurial leadership.
“They would be mindful of the fact that we need a proportional response, and also mindful of the fact that sophisticated actors, when they carry out actions like this, are oftentimes — not always, but often — seeking to provoke a response from the United States of America,” Mr. Earnest said. “They may believe that a response from us in one fashion or another would be advantageous to them. So we want to be mindful of that.”