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US concludes North Korea ‘centrally involved’ in Sony computer attacks

WASHINGTON — US intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was “centrally involved” in the recent attacks on Sony Pictures’ computers, a determination reached just as Sony on Wednesday canceled its release of the comedy “The Interview,” which is based on a plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on record about intelligence findings, said the White House was debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to cyberterrorism. Sony’s decision to cancel release of the film amounted to a capitulation to threats sent by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters, if the movie was released.

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Officials said it was not clear how the White House would respond to North Korea. Some within the Obama administration argue the government of Kim must be directly confronted but that raises the question of what consequences the administration would threaten — or how much of its evidence it could make public without revealing details of how the United States was able to penetrate North Korean computer networks to trace the source.

Others argue that a confrontation with the North over the threats to Sony and moviegoers might result in escalation and give North Korea the kind of confrontation it often covets. Japan, for which Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations underway for the return of Japanese nationals kidnapped years ago.

The sudden urgency inside the administration over the Sony issue came after a new threat was delivered this week to desktop computers at Sony’s offices that if “The Interview” was released on Dec. 25, “the world will be full of fear.” It continued: “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”

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Sony dropped its plan to release the film after the four largest US theater chains — Regal Entertainment, AMC Theatres, Cinemark, and Carmike Cinemas — and several smaller chains said they would not show the film. 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.

While intelligence officials have concluded that the cyberattack on Sony was both state-sponsored and far more destructive than any seen before on US soil, there are still differences of opinion over whether North Korea was aided by Sony insiders with an intimate knowledge of the company’s computer systems.

“This is of a different nature than past attacks,” one senior official said. A cyberattack that began by wiping out data on corporate computers — something previously been seen in attacks in South Korea and Saudi Arabia but not in the United States — has turned “into a threat to the safety of Americans” if the movie was shown.

However, both the official and the Department of Homeland Security, the latter in a statement, said, “There is no specific, credible threat information that would suggest that any attack was imminent.”