American officials have concluded that North Korea ordered the attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers, a determination reached as the studio decided Wednesday to cancel the release of a movie comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un and that is believed to have led to the hacking.
Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism attack. Sony capitulated after the hackers threatened additional attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie, “The Interview,” was released.
Officials said it was not clear how the White House would respond. Some within the Obama administration argue that Mr. Kim’s government must be confronted directly. But that raises questions of the threats that the administration would issue, or how much evidence to make public without revealing details of how it was able to penetrate North Korean computer networks to trace the hacking.
Other administration officials said a direct confrontation with the North provide North Korea the kind of confrontation it covets. Japan, where Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations for the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped years ago.
The administration’s sudden urgency came after a new threat delivered this week to desktop computers at Sony’s offices warned that if “The Interview” was released on Dec. 25, “the world will be full of fear.”
“Remember the 11th of September 2001,” it said. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”
The four largest theater chains in the United States — Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark and Carmike Cinemas — and several smaller chains said they would not show the film as a result of the threat. The cancellations virtually killed “The Interview” as a theatrical enterprise, at least in the near term, one of the first known instances of a threat from another nation pre-empting the release of a movie. Sony then dropped its plan to release the film, which stars James Franco and Seth Rogen.
While intelligence officials have concluded that the cyberattack was both state-sponsored and far more destructive than any seen before on American soil, there are still differences of opinion over whether North Korea was aided by Sony insiders with an knowledge of the company’s computer systems, senior administration officials said.