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Sony CEO Strikes Back After Obama Slams Studio For Giving Into North Korea's Threats

The President says the studio "made a mistake" in pulling the movie at the center of the controversy.
December 19, 2014, 10:35pm
Photo via Damian Dovarganes/AP

The Sony Pictures cyber hack seems to be everywhere this week, including in President Barack Obama's year-end address. The president weighed in on the controversy today, saying that the studio's executives made a huge mistake in pulling the movie at the center of it all from its Christmas Day release.

But in the latest round of bite-backs in the endless repartee between politicians, studio executives, and the media over the incident, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton denied the company "caved" after Obama said the studio "made a mistake" by canceling the release of the film The Interview.

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"I don't know exactly whether he understands the sequence of events that led up to the movie not being shown in the movie theaters," Lynton said of the president's remarks in an interview with CNN. "Therefore I would disagree with the notion that it was a mistake."

The president's comments came hours after the FBI officially pointed the finger at North Korea, which it claims is responsible for conducting the hack that saw the public leak — and subsequent cherry-picked media scrutiny — of tens of thousands of private emails, employee social security numbers, and conversations that have left some Sony execs pretty red-faced.

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Guardians of Peace, the shadowy group that claimed responsibility for the attack, which was first reported in late November, had been threatening the studio over the release of The Interview, a poorly-reviewed comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as characters that attempt to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

"I think they made a mistake," Obama said of Sony's decision to cancel the movie's December 25 release and pull it from theaters.

"If somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary they don't like, or news reports they don't like," he said.

"Even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others started engaging in self-censorship because they don't want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended," Obama added. "That's not who we are, that's not what America's about."

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Shortly before the president took the podium, the FBI released a statement Friday alleging that hackers used "destructive malware" to infiltrate the studio's network, forcing it offline. The perpetrators then uploaded the content to online file-sharing website Pastebin, where details have been picked up by media in recent weeks.

"North Korea's actions were intended to inflict significant harm on a US business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves," the FBI statement read. "Such acts of intimidation fall outside the bounds of acceptable state behavior."

In a separate statement, Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson echoed the sentiments, saying the scope of the hack was, "an attack on our freedom of expression and way of life."

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The incident has caused weeks of headaches for Sony executives, and has exposed more than just the studio's lax security. The ongoing saga also brought to light thousands of private emails between the company's top dogs, discussing, among a range of topics, certain sensitive projects, actors, directors, and even Obama himself.

In one of the email chains, producer Scott Rudin and Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal joke about Obama's favorite film, which they muse could be any number of black-themed movies, including Django Unchained or The Butler.

The company's handling of the hack was also criticized this week after lawyers issued letters trying to block the media from publishing its embarrassing electronic back-and-forths.

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In the letters, Sony lawyer David Boies wrote that the hacked information was, "protected under US and foreign legal doctrines protecting attorney-client privileged communications … as well as private financial and other confidential information and communications."

The theft of employees personal identity information, including social security numbers, birthday, and salary history in the attack has also led a number of ex-staffers to sue the studio over privacy violations, claiming Sony knew it lacked sufficient safeguards to protect against such a hack, but did nothing.

The plaintiffs have banded together, hoping to pull in 15,000 employees into the pool. They are seeking five years worth of credit and bank monitoring, identity theft insurance and services that would restore credit. They also called for the studio to conduct regular privacy audits.

Lynton did not dismiss the possibility that the studio could still release the movie yet, which has become representative of a far greater philosophical symbolism than initially intended.

"We have not given in. And we have not backed down. We have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie," Lynton said. "A number of options are open to us and we have considered those and are considering them."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields