The White House hasn't confirmed reports that cite a senior administration official blaming North Korea for the cyberattack, but spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that whoever is responsible can expect a "proportional" response from the U.S. government.
"This is a matter that is still under investigation," Earnest said when asked if North Korea was the culprit. The cyberhack was, however, carried out by a "sophisticated actor," he added.
The investigation by the FBI and department of justice is "progressing" and significant resources are being devoted to it, but Earnest did not indicate how close they are to speaking publicly about who was behind the breach and the subsequent threat of violence.
The hackers were motivated by their opposition to the Sony film The Interview, because the plot is about the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jung-un. They leaked a treasure trove of Sony emails and documents in recent weeks and earlier this week issued a threat to movie theatres planning to screen the film, invoking the 9/11 terrorist attack against the U.S. in their warning.
The White House has been holding daily meetings about the Sony cyberattack with Obama's homeland security team, law enforcement, intelligence officials and others.
Sony isn't the first major American corporation to be hacked. Target and Home Depot are among the others, but those breaches weren't treated as national security matters. Why is the White House treating this one differently?
"Because of the destructive activity with malicious intent," Earnest said when asked how a cyberattack against a corporation was elevated to the White House and its national security team.
White House considers options
The team is considering a "range" of options for its response to the hack, but Earnest wouldn't elaborate on what they are and when reporters took a few guesses, he said he would not speculate on what the White House will decide.
The decision-makers are being mindful of two key things, he said. One is that the reaction should be "proportional" and secondly, that the perpetrators could be seeking to provoke the U.S. and that's not a game the government may want to play.
Whatever action Obama does take will partly be determined by who is found responsible, Earnest noted.
It is widely believed though that North Korea is connected to the attack and if that's the case the U.S. could take one of a few routes.
It has already imposed severe sanctions on the isolated country, but it could do more and go further in trying to cut North Korea off from financial markets and international currencies.
It could lay criminal charges if it can find who actually conducted the attack, but then what? The accused, if physically in North Korea, certainly wouldn't be extradited to the U.S.
The U.S. could launch a naming and shaming campaign, using strong language aimed at deterring others.
Launching a counter cyberattack could be an option, but it's not a good one, according to Jim Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
U.S. 'would lose' cyberwar
"If we do something to the North Koreans and they do another cyberattack, what do we do then? Do we start a war with them?" he said. The U.S. is not in a position to defend itself, said Lewis. "We would lose."
Cyber defence systems in the private and public sectors are better than they were a decade ago, but they aren't strong enough yet to withstand attacks against major infrastructure, he said.
Sony's decision to scrap the release of the film has prompted a passionate public, and political, debate. Washington lawmakers and talking heads have been weighing in, and many are calling on Obama to do something to punish North Korea.
Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrinch, now a political commentator, said allowing this attack to go unpunished would set a dangerous precedent.
"We have to take steps that cost the North Koreans a substantial amount in either money or prestige or something else," he said on CNN Thursday. "Unless we have a very strong response, we have lost this war and that should be a serious concern for Congress and the president and require us to really rethink our policy."
Republican Senator John McCain wasn't happy about Sony's decision to pull the movie, saying it encourages the use cyber technology as a weapon, but he blamed Obama for putting Sony in such a position.
"The administration's failure to deter our adversaries has emboldened, and will continue to embolden, those seeking to harm the United States through cyberspace," he said in a statement.
Obama is due to leave Washington this weekend for his Christmas holiday in Hawaii but before he does, he will meet the press Friday and will likely be asked, repeatedly, what is he going to do?