Sony Pictures on Wednesday canceled the Christmas Day release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco movie
bowing to threats of a wide-scale attack from hackers who U.S. intelligence officials have concluded were working for North Korea.
U.S. officials, though, were not prepared to publicly accuse the reclusive government, in large part because the Obama administration has not determined what, if any, action it could take.
Intelligence officials believe with "99 percent certainty" that hackers working for the North Korean government carried out the attack, said one individual who was briefed on the investigation and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Officials agree that there are no good options on how to respond. Unlike China, which the United States has publicly accused of stealing vast amounts of intellectual property from U.S. companies, North Korea is far removed from the global economy and already under economic sanctions, imposed by the United Nations, targeting its nuclear program.
"There are no sanctions left," said a U.S. official.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the U.S. government had no involvement in Sony's decision.
President Obama commented on the hacking Wednesday in an interview with ABC News.
"We're investigating and we're taking it seriously," he said. "If we see something that we think is serious and credible then we'll alert the public. But for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies."
Sony said Wednesday that it was "deeply saddened at [the hackers'] brazen effort" to suppress the movie and was opting "not to move forward" with the Dec. 25 release.
A Sony representative later said that the studio "has no further release plans for the film."
Earlier in the day, the nation's five largest theater circuits had said they would delay the $44 million film's opening.
One, Cineplex, said it "takes seriously its commitment to the freedom of artistic expression" but added that safety was paramount due to the "unprecedented and complex situation."
That a hacking squad could derail the plans for one of the world's biggest entertainment firms, experts said, marks a worrying new precedent for cyberterrorism that could encourage even more attacks.
Guardians of Peace, the group claiming responsibility for the hack, issued a sharp warning this week promising a "bitter fate" for those going to the movie and warning others "to keep yourself distant from the places at that time."
The North Korean government has denied involvement in the hack but called it "a righteous deed" and threatened to undertake "a merciless countermeasure" due to the film's premiere. It added that the Rogen-Franco comedy, which ends with the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is a "most blatant act of terrorism and war."
Investigators reached their conclusion in part by comparing malware used in the hack to malware North Korea used in hacks against South Korean banks in recent years, said individuals familiar with the probe. They also found that some of the malware was written using the Korean language.
The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday there was no credible evidence suggesting an active plot against U.S. theaters.
Sony could choose to unveil the film later in theaters or skip the big screen altogether and release it through video on demand.
Rogen declined to comment, and messages left with Franco were not returned. They have canceled talk-show appearances and other media interviews.
The hacker group has released several years' of sensitive Sony documents. It also promised a "Christmas gift," likely another dump of internal secrets.
Some theater executives worried that a cancellation could accelerate the trend of viewers turning away from the big screen to watch movies at home.
The derailed premiere stunned Hollywood. Actor Rob Lowe said in a tweet that he had seen Rogen at the airport and that "both of us have never seen or heard of anything like this."