How Should U.S. Respond to Sony Cyber Attack?

After the U.S. identified the North Korean government as responsible for the Sony cyber attack, a panel of experts debates how the U.S. and Sony should respond.
9:53 | 12/21/14

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Transcript for How Should U.S. Respond to Sony Cyber Attack?
We're going to move now to those fast-moving developments on the hack attack on Sony. Fellow investigators tracking down the north Koreans behind it and president Obama says he's considering putting North Korea back on the terrorism watch list and Sony firing back at the president's criticism. Here's ABC's senior justice correspondent Pierre Thomas. Reporter: This morning the FBI investigation heating up. Agents chasing down the names of the north Korean officials who allegedly ordered the cyberattack. One option, charging them as common criminals, arresting them could prove impossible, but the president vowed there would be a response. They caused a lot of damage. We will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we'll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. Reporter: It all began a month ago. The group calling itself guardians of peace demanded Sony scrap the release of "The interview," a comedy depicting the assassination of north Korea's dictator. Do you want to go kill Kim jong-un? Totally. Reporter: Soon Sony was hit with what the FBI called a devastating computer network attack. It was unprecedented taking computer stations offline, deleting files and posting the company's strategic plans, then it got worse. The hackers threatened moviegoers. Sony canceled the New York premiere. Theater chains said they wouldn't show it, and Sony pulled the plug. Game, set, match. The hackers won. The president called out Sony. I think they made a mistake. I wish they had spoken to me first. I would have told them, do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks. Reporter: But Sony's CEO blamed movie theater chains for not showing it. He said he had no choice. We have not caved. We have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie. Reporter: That might spark another cyberattack from the hackers who say they'll retaliate if the film is ever released. The response could come from the elite spy unit called bureau 121. Cyber warriors recruited as children and trained at this military school. The U.S. May consider new sanctions against North Korea and is asking the Chinese government, one of North Korea's only allies, to use its influence. The irony is that the request for China's help came only seven months after the justice department charged several Chinese military officers with hacking U.S. Companies. George, this is a challenging situation. Yeah, it is a brand-new world. Okay, Pierre, we're going to dig into it now with our experts. Major general Brett Williams and Fran Townsend, former without and homeland security director and counterterrorism adviser now with CNN, Thor halvorssen, president and founder of the human rights activist and Mitch singer, former strategy officer for Sony. And, Mitch, let me begin with you. You've been pretty outspoken defending Sony. How would you respond to the president's critique? Well, look, I mean, we all certainly agree with the president. The idea that, you know, a foreign nation reached across the pacific and actually did this to us is frightening, is frightening and -- but I think -- I think in the end if you really think about it, you know, blaming a victim here, and there's no question that Sony was the victim of an unprecedented cyberextortion attack here with -- and you said it in the setup with hard drives basically wiped out, private confidential information exposed, employees' private data, medical records and more threatened and instead of sitting here and blaming the victim, I think what we should be looking at is what's the government going to do here and I've been writing about it because I wanted to change the focus away from Sony pictures or away from any company that would suffer this type of attack. When I think of the government's obligation here to, you know, provide common defense and general welfare of the people and companies that do business on the soil, I'd like to focus there. I'd like to see some tangible public policy solutions come out of all this and see some private and public, you know, collaboration here. Let's talk to former government officials. Let me move on on from there and I want to bring up the question you raise. Major general Brett Williams, you headed cyber command. If you were in that job right now the president would come to you and say what can we do? What's the answer? I was the director of operations at cyber command and I see us being challenged on three fronts, if you will. Number one, I think our ability to understand how we integrate cyber into our national security apparatus, how do we use cyber to exercise the elements of power and diplomatic information, military, economic, et cetera, is still developing. Number two, that's a hard target. North Korea doesn't rely on cyberspace in the same way the United States does either for national security or economics, and they aren't as connected, and if they aren't as connected, it's much harder to get in then, number three, we play by the rules so anything we do has to account things like sovereignty. If I change a one to a zero on a hard drive do I violate someone's sovereignty? If I'm asked to turn off the power to a military facility, I have to guarantee you it doesn't impact a hospital or bank so it complicates our problem but that's what they're doing at cyber command right now developing options for the president that can be rolled up with all the elements of national power. Fran, you would be part of that process, as well. What would you do? That's right. Look, there's a range of things. What you're hearing from the general, one, the offensive cyber -- and you can block them. What the administration has asked of the Chinese, we need their help because all of their -- They've been bad actors here too. That's exactly right. 46 -- that's the problem here. It's not clear if the Chinese will help us. Adding them to the terrorist list and there's this bank account in macaw that they don't want us to touch so there's range of things including counter propaganda if that's what I want to talk to Thor about. That's why I want to talk to Thor halvorssen here. You're head of the human rights foundation. You've talked about the idea of actually finding a way to get the film into North Korea, dropping it in on these little USB drives. Would that really work? George, we've been doing this for some time and our partners in South Korea at the border have been doing it. They're mostly north Korean defectors and they know it works because many came to South Korea or escaped north Korea through China as a result of receiving some of this material and North Korea has no internet connections whatsoever. North Korea -- it's the hermit kingdom and try to keep information tightly locked. It's why this film is so dangerous to them because they perceive the kims as a god and a film like this, that idea flies in the face of that so they're terrified of any information that -- Explain that more. I've seen the movie. I thought it was pretty funny, I got to tell you the truth and it demystified Kim in so many ways, mocked Kim. Would that really have an effect on the north Koreans? Absolutely. In fact, there was a young lady now working in our office here in New York she saw "Titanic" as a child and "Titanic" changed her life. You say why -- A north Korean woman. North Korean. North Korean when she was a teenager. This movie she saw a man was willing to die for a woman for love. This to her was completely alien. Her aha moment. All of these things are dangerous because they produce aha moments living under propaganda -- Why shouldn't Sony just release this online then? It's easy for us to again talk to Sony about what they should or they shouldn't do in connection with this film and the bottom line, George, on this is that it's not to us -- it's not up to us or the press or the president to actually tell Sony what to do here. No, but I'm asking -- isn't it Sony's responsibility? They're trying -- their responsibility is to continue producing great movies in the future. That's their responsibility. And right now it's to get through this and survive as a company and we're putting too much emphasis on requiring that a single company here like it's their fault that they didn't stand up to terrorism here. That's too much of a burden to put on a victim here. George, there's an opportunity here for the president to show real leadership, right. Remember post-9/11 there was the George bush is on the pile and takes a microphone. Well, the president, look, you could have -- this may not be the movie, right. It's a satirical movie, but we could all come together not over the movie but over the principle of freedom of expression. Hold a screening at the white house. Hold a screening at the white house. I'd hold -- Would you go? I'd hold a screening in the middle of times square and have a national moment of this release that is a moment for the country to come together to help Sony to heal and get past this. There will be covert things the president will do offensive and defensive cyber operations but we need to take the leverage away from North Korea and one of the ways to do that is have a national moment -- I want to bring those to general Williams, as well. Number one, if the president takes these covert actions, we may never know about it, right? That's correct and I would agree that may be the best way to do it. One thing we have to take out of this is this is the latest in a series of very serious wake-up calls to us. People can use cyber to do very devastating things and as bad as this has been for Sony, imagine something with a similar impact on the energy sector or in a big financial institution. That gets to my final question. I was struck by by the assistant director to the FBI saying this could happen to -- this could get through 90% of corporations. If a corporation came to you and said what can I do to protect myself, what's the answer? I think the number one thing we tell you have to do, you've got to at the board and CEO level take cybersecurity as serious as you take business operations and financial operations. Not good enough to go to your cio and go, are we good to go. You have to ask questions and understand the answers. And the second thing you've got to do is invest in a defensible architecture. We're still trying to defend the internet that Al gore and the team built and it was never designed to be attacked. We have to move into something that we can actually effectively defend, and investment needs to

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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