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Interview With State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf; Cyber Threats; Presidential Trip to Cuba?

Aired December 18, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: How close is the U.S. to publicly blaming North Korea?

Vulnerable to attack, American infrastructure a possible target for cyber-terrorists. We're learning now details of North Korea's vast and global network of hackers.

Remarkable journey? President Obama visiting Cuba or Raul Castro inside the White House? Officials are actually leaving open both possibilities. How likely are these presidential trips unthinkable only days ago?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

Let's get to the breaking news. We're learning new information about the cyber-terror attack on Sony and how hackers may have gained access to the company's computers, virtually crippling it.

We're covering all angles of this fast-moving story this hour with our correspondents and our guests, including the State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf.

But let's begin with our justice reporter Evan Perez and the breaking news.

Evan, tell our viewers here in the United States and around the world what your sources are now telling you.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're learning from our sources that U.S. investigators have found evidence that the hackers who broke into Sony's systems were able to get in by simply stealing the credentials of a system administrator, somebody who had access to the entire computer system of the company.

As one person described it to me, Wolf, they had the keys to the entire building. We know that the NSA, the FBI, the Justice Department's national security division have been working around the clock on this case, simply because they believe this is a big national security issue, Wolf.

Part of the reason is because they believe this came from North Korea. The North Koreans were very careful. They tried to make it look like this attack came from Europe or computer systems in China. What they didn't realize, though, was that they left behind telltale digital fingerprints. And the NSA was able to use some of its capabilities, signals intelligence, to track those trails right back to North Korea, Wolf.

BLITZER: As far as the U.S. government is concerned, Evan, and you broke the story, they have no doubt that North Korea is directly responsible for this cyber-terror attack?

PEREZ: There's no doubt, Wolf. And because North Korea has such a tight grip, the regime there has such a tight grip on everything, from the Internet, obviously, the economy, everything, they believe this was ordered from up high.

The question is, what do we do about it? So that's what we're expecting to hear, perhaps as soon as tomorrow, from the White House, how they're going to respond to this, which is a very unprecedented attack, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is. All right, thanks very much, Evan Perez, breaking the news right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We did hear in the last hour the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce. He says he has no doubt North Korea is responsible.

The Obama administration is now calling the cyber-terror attack on Sony a national security threat to the United States, and the White House is vowing there will be what White House officials call a proportional response.

Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is taking a look at possible responses. What is the latest, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, despite the mounting evidence, the White House has not publicly named North Korea. But they do, as you say, say they're preparing for a response that they want to be proportional, but one that doesn't give into any North Korean provocation.

They're clearly still working out how to achieve that balance. But we know several options are under discussion, including tightening already stringent sanctions on the dirt poor North Korean economy.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): With the administration close to publicly blaming North Korea for the Sony hack, meetings now under way at the White House to launch what it calls a "proportional response."

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As the members of the national security team meet to discuss this matter, they are considering a range of options.

SCIUTTO: The administration has several potentially powerful steps at its disposal. The U.S. could impose further economic sanctions on North Korea, including applying even stricter restrictions on Pyongyang's access to dollar-denominated trade, the desperately poor communist country's economic lifeline to fuel, food and, crucially, weapons.

REP. ED ROYCE (R), CALIFORNIA: If we block them from the international financial community, they can't get the hard currency that they need in order to carry out the types of activities, clandestine activities they are doing, as well as their nuclear weapons program.

SCIUTTO: This is a tactic the administration has applied with great effect against Iran regarding its nuclear program and more recently against Russia following its invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Naming and shaming North Korea publicly is another step, a move the U.S. took years to make with Beijing, despite its multiple and systematic cyber-attacks against U.S. businesses and government departments.

If U.S. investigators identify the individuals behind the hack, the U.S. could also levy criminal charges against North Korean hackers, a step the U.S. took against an elite group of Chinese hackers earlier this year believed housed at this building outside of Shanghai and known as Unit 61398.

JIM LEWIS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: One of the reasons you haven't seen an aggressive U.S. response is we don't know what they would do back and we don't want to start a second Korean war. We don't want to see cyber-attacks that we can't stop. So North Korea, not at the top of the league when it comes to cyber- attack, not even good as Iran, but very dangerous.


SCIUTTO: So what about a retaliatory cyber-attack? That is a response the U.S. has long been extremely wary of, fearing it could start a dangerous and escalating cycle of cyber-attack and counterattack, perhaps even military action.

There is always concern about renewed North Korean efforts to a missile or at worst a nuclear weapon. But so far the U.S. is not seeing any preparations that they would see before North Korea could take such a step -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Key word, so far. They're watching it though very closely. Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

This isn't the first major cyber-attack against Sony.

CNN's Will Ripley joining us now live from Tokyo, where the company is headquartered.

What are you picking up over there, Will?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We know that companies here in Tokyo are growing increasingly concerned about this, Wolf, because Sony is no stranger to hacks.

In fact, it's hacked every single day, it's one of the most hacked companies in the world. They had a major breach in 2011 where tens of millions of users' personal information was compromised. They stepped up their security, but I learned when I visited a cyber-lab that even the best steps to protect companies would not have done any good against this level of attack.


RIPLEY (voice-over): Hidden behind security doors and bulletproof glass, a Tokyo office that could easily be the set of a sci-fi movie. Only this plot is real.

(on camera): They say this is a map that shows all of the cyber- attacks launched at Japan just in the last month.

(voice-over): Hackers from the around the world targeting thousands of Japanese companies. For hundreds of them, this Tokyo cyber-security firm is the only line of defense.

The hackers are always getting more advanced, says Itsuro Nishimoto, sometimes, too advanced for those trying to keep up. For LAC, which keeps its client list confidential, the chief technology officer knows a devastating hack like the one on Sony Pictures can penetrate even the best cyber-defense.

(on camera): You have all these experts here. Could you have protected against an attack like this? Could anybody protected against it?

"Not 100 percent," he says. "It's like catching a cold or getting the flu" or in Sony's case a disease that crippled a major corporation. For the better part of a decade, the electronics and entertainment giant has been a popular cyber-target. Three years ago, in 2011, hackers stole 77 million PlayStation accounts, knocking out the network for almost a month.

KEITH HENRY, ASIA STRATEGIST: People thought about so-called cyber-terrorism, they thought hacking.

RIPLEY: Asia strategist Keith Henry says Sony was taken by surprise last month. Cyber-criminals took control of Sony Pictures' computer system and they did something unprecedented, stealing massive amounts of data and using it to devastate the company.

HENRY: They can inflict damage, immense amount of damage to corporate America.

RIPLEY: Sony appears to be trying to avoid further provoking North Korea, the prime hacking suspect, telling CNN simply the investigation is ongoing.

The Japanese government is also distancing itself, telling CNN it's a United States issue.

HENRY: One of the reasons why no one is willing to make a statement is because they don't know what to say.

RIPLEY: Henry says the world is coming to terms with the new reality of cyber-terrorism.

HENRY: How are we going to deal with it? We don't know yet.

RIPLEY: For now, at tech labs like this, a new sense of urgency, figuring out how to fend off a new kind of enemy.


RIPLEY: Wolf, insiders here in Tokyo are telling me that this chilling effect is really remarkable, because companies and even governments don't want to risk cyber-attacks from North Korea, which is why they're not saying anything to provoke that country.

You visited North Korea, as did I, a few months ago. It's a mentally exhausting place where you're constantly wondering if you're being watched or listened to. People live in fear. And now that fear is extending beyond the borders of that remote country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story this one is. Will Ripley in Tokyo for us, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Joining us, the State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf.

Marie, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Did North Korea organize, plan, plot this entire cyber- attack against Sony Pictures?

HARF: The investigation is still ongoing.

Clearly, this was a very destructive act done with malicious intent by a very sophisticated actor. The FBI and Department of Justice are looking into that right now, but it is progressing and obviously when we have anything to share about that investigation, we will.

BLITZER: If you are 100 percent convinced it's North Korea, will you at least make that public, that concern, and name and shame, if you will, North Korea?

HARF: There are a range of options here that could come out of any investigation, both in terms of naming who is responsible, but also in terms of what reaction you might see from the United States, what response you might see.

So, I don't want to get ahead of where that process is, but it's ongoing. Every day, the national security team has been meeting to talk about this issue and talk about the range of options we have to respond. BLITZER: How close is the FBI and the Justice Department to

concluding its investigation?

HARF: It's progressing.

Obviously, there are a range of actors around the world who have these kinds of capabilities. We have seen this before. The cyber- threat is certainly not a new one. We see them attack the U.S. government before in terms of hacking as well. So they're looking into it. It's progressing, but they're going to take the time to do it right.

BLITZER: You heard the breaking news here in THE SITUATION ROOM from our Evan Perez, our justice reporter, that the way the North Koreans got this was to steal the credentials, if you will, of a high Sony security or technological expert over there and then get in there and start stealing all of that material. You want to react to that?

HARF: Well, again, the investigation is ongoing. I know they're looking at all facets of what happened here, how this happened, and again the team sees this as a national security issue. I know the president and the secretary both do.

And what we're talking about right now is both determining who is responsible and then determining our response.

BLITZER: Are these cyber-attacks potentially the greatest threat right now to the U.S. national security?

HARF: They're certainly near the top of the list.

I'm not going to get in the business I think of ranking threats. Certainly, we're concerned about a number of them, but to remind everyone, this is not new. When I started nine years ago as a CIA analyst, we were very focused on it back then. We have been focused on it for a long time.

But it's clearly at the top of the list, again, not just against the U.S. government potentially, but against businesses. So we work with the private sector to help them bolster their defenses and to help them try to prevent this from happening.

BLITZER: Remind me because I seem to remember a few weeks ago -- was the State Department's computers hacked?

HARF: The State Department and, if people remember, the White House both over the course of some months this summer underwent a series of intrusions, activity that we saw and knew was abnormal.

We know people are trying to do this across the U.S. government every day. So, we have been at the receiving end of this, not in the same way as Sony. But we are very focused on it, because we know there are actors out there trying to get access to our information, trying to get into our system for nefarious purposes.

BLITZER: Who did it against the State Department? HARF: We have looked into that. Obviously, there are a range of

actors of who could. We don't always name who we think did so publicly.

BLITZER: But do you know?

HARF: I know the investigation has been ongoing. I think we have a good sense of who may have been responsible.

BLITZER: Why wouldn't you name that actor, as you call it, if it's a state or somebody, some private person out there? Why not?

HARF: There's always competing challenges here, right, and competing priorities.

I think that's sort of what Jim Sciutto was referring to in the previous segment. Obviously, we want to respond, but we don't want to respond in a way that provokes something that's not in the U.S. national security interest. So there's always this challenge here when you find out who may have tried to access these systems. Again, there's a number of countries who have varying levels of capabilities when it comes to cyber-attacks.

BLITZER: You have heard various groups out there, adversaries of the United States, say the United States is responsible for these cyber-attacks, because the U.S. and Israel working together had this Operation Stuxnet, as it was called, and basically destroyed several key elements of Iran's nuclear program.

HARF: Well, look, when it comes to what we're looking at right now, when we're talking about protecting our systems, the U.S. government systems, American business systems, what we're focused on is preventing malicious activities from states or nonstates, right?

Individuals who aren't even affiliated with states have some of these capabilities too, from affecting our systems and getting information that we don't want them to have. That's what we're focused on right now.

BLITZER: Has the government -- you speak for the State Department -- confirmed that Stuxnet cyber-attack against Iran?

HARF: I know there have been a range of rumors and reports out there about these kinds of activities. As you can imagine, we don't comment on them one way or the other.

BLITZER: All right, stand by, Marie. We have got a lot more to discuss, other major issues on the agenda right now.

Much more on the breaking news, not official yet, but CNN has confirmed North Korea was responsible for that cyber-attack on Sony Pictures. Much more coming up right after this.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news on the Sony cyber- terror attacks. Sources now telling CNN investigators here in Washington have evidence hackers stole the computer credentials of a system administrator at Sony to get access to Sony's computer system and do what they did.

We're back with the State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf.

What can the United States do, a proportional response? What does that mean?

HARF: We don't know what that means yet, obviously because we're not at the end of the investigation yet. There are a range of options we have to respond in these kind of scenarios.

I think you heard them laid out over your show, things we have done in the past. But we're just not there yet in terms of outlining those publicly.

BLITZER: One of the options would be to simply cut off their opportunity to deal with banks around the world, because they need that foreign currency. That's an option, to tighten the U.S. sanctions.

HARF: There are a number of options of course on the table and we're just not going to put anything I think on the table or off the table at this point while the investigation is...


BLITZER: There's been a little confusion on the role the State Department played in allowing or supporting or endorsing, giving the blessing to Sony Pictures to go ahead with this film "The Interview," which depicts the assassination attempt against Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. What exactly was the State Department role?

HARF: We are certainly not in the business of approving signing off on content, of approving these kinds of films.

I think the people who make these films would be the first to say absolutely not, that's not the role the State Department plays. Of course, if it's appropriate, we have subject matter experts who can talk to filmmakers, others in the entertainment industry who are working on projects, but certainly not anything like approving content. That is way outside of our role, certainly did not happen here.

BLITZER: Did Sony allow you guys, somebody at the State Department, a group of people, an individual, to review, to get in a screening of some of these controversial scenes?

HARF: I haven't talked to anyone who has actually seen any of it. I can't speak for every single person. But my understanding is we provided conversations about the expertise we have on North Korea, but certainly did not do advanced screenings on sign off on anything.

What we have done with Sony is since this attack, the U.S. government writ large has been sharing as much information as possible about the investigation and really helping them in the aftermath in terms of their response, too.

BLITZER: Did anybody at the State Department read the script, the screenplay, if you will, or at least elements or excerpts from the screenplay?

HARF: I haven't talked to everyone who was in contact with the film producers, but again, all that we did here was provide subject matter expertise and talk to the filmmakers, answer questions about North Korea. But I think artists like filmmakers would be the first to admit certainly that's the extent of they would look for from the State Department.

BLITZER: Because there have been these reports that U.S., the State Department special envoy for North Korea, or the human rights assistant secretary, if you will, that they had some conversations, if you will, with representatives from Sony.

HARF: We're certainly happy to have conversations with anybody who wants to talk to us about our expertise on issues. But that's very different than I think some of erroneous reports out there that we somehow signed off on this. That's just not the case.

BLITZER: But did they have conversations?

HARF: Of course. We have a range of conversations with many people. But this is Sony's content, this is theirs, their movie, not ours.

BLITZER: What message does it send to cyber-terrorists out there that Sony Pictures canceled, killed this film for all practical purposes? It's no longer going to be released.

HARF: Look, this is a decision for a private business to make. We of course don't weigh in on that. We don't have any credible information that there was a threat to movie theaters. I'm sure I would be happy going to see a movie this holiday season. We didn't have any information in terms of that.

But it's their decision to make and it's a business one and they have made it and it's not really our place to weigh in on it.

BLITZER: There's been other movies where Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong-un, he was depicted in horrible ways, funny comedies, if you will, "Team America," that film, among others.

Nobody seemed to care at that time. But all of a sudden it's become a big deal.

HARF: Well, look, there are a number of artistic works out there that have portrayed, as my colleague Josh Earnest said today, the president, the secretary, not always in flattering lights.

But the great thing about our country is we believe in the First Amendment and freedom of expression and that even though we don't like things, sometimes that's the great thing about the system we have here, clearly very different from North Korea.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Cuba for a moment, because all of a sudden today, the White House press secretary Josh Earnest says they're not ruling out the possibility inviting the Cuban president, Raul Castro, to come to Washington, to go to the White House and to go into the Oval Office and have a sit-down meeting with the president of the United States, this a day after President Obama said he's not ruling out going to Havana.

These are bombshell, breathtaking statements.

HARF: Absolutely.

Wolf, yesterday was one of those days where you're reminded of why you do these jobs, because it was an extraordinary moment, changing over 50 years of policy that's failed. My boss, Secretary Kerry, is looking forward to going to Cuba at some point.

This is going to be a whole new world that we have here. We are going to have more influence in the region. We are going to have more influence in Cuba. The policy we have had in place for over 50 years hasn't worked. That's why yesterday you heard the president come out and chart a very different course.

BLITZER: Secretary of State Kerry, he is charged now with dealing with his Cuban counterpart, the foreign minister, to establish formal diplomatic relations. The United States opening up an embassy in Havana, the Cubans having an embassy here in Washington, ambassadors exchanged, if you will. When do those talks, when does the secretary start those talks with the Cuban foreign minister?

HARF: We are going to start with the assistant secretary at the State Department. She will be meeting with the Cubans in January to start the process of normalization.

BLITZER: Where will those meetings take place?

HARF: I think they're going to be in Cuba. I think we're still working out details.

But Secretary Kerry, as you can remember, has dealt with normalization before when it came to Vietnam. So he has personal experience in how you transition a relationship with a country. He spoke with the Cuban foreign minister this summer several times trying to get us to where we were yesterday. So we're starting the process in January.

I don't know how long it will take, but we're very much looking forward to having diplomatic relations.

BLITZER: So Secretary of State Kerry, he played a role. It wasn't just Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser at the White House going to Canada, going to Canada meeting with Cuban officials through the good offices of the Canadians, for example? The State Department did have a role in this, is that what you're saying?

HARF: Absolutely.

Certainly, the NSC team was the lead in terms of that diplomatic piece you talked about. But the secretary worked very closely with his colleagues at the Vatican, including a meeting this week when we just in Rome with Cardinal Parolin. But he worked very closely with the Vatican and also spoke with the Cuban foreign minister about the crucial importance of Alan Gross being released on humanitarian grounds.

Yesterday, when we landed at Andrews and Secretary Kerry was able to hug Alan Gross, hug his wife, Judy, it was one of those moments that I think he and all of us will remember for our whole lives.

BLITZER: He was at Andrews Air Force base because he had just flown in, what, from London 20 minutes earlier. By chance, he was there. He stuck around, waited to see Alan Gross, gave him that big hug. You were there, too?


HARF: I was. And it was totally by fate. We landed about 20 minutes after Alan Gross did.

The secretary, who had played a role here and had spoken to the Cubans and had spoken to the Vatican about Alan Gross specifically, just that moment I think and seeing how happy he was to be home, how happy his family was and his friends, it's just one of those moments where you realize diplomacy can make a difference.

BLITZER: It might not if Senator Marco Rubio and some other critics have their way. They say they're not going to vote to confirm a U.S. ambassador who is nominated to be ambassador to Cuba. They are not going to vote any funding to operate a U.S. embassy in Havana. They're really angry about this decision the president made. Your response?

HARF: Well, first of all, they have already voted to authorize an interests section in Havana.

We already have diplomats on the ground there. But embassies are not gifts to countries. They are a projection of American values and American power and American interests. They help American citizens who might travel to Cuba and need representation there.

They help promote democracy, which is our ultimate goal, including I think Senator Rubio's ultimate goal as well. We think the best way to do that is to have a representation there. Look, if we didn't have embassies in places we didn't agree with their human rights records, we would have far few embassies around the world, to be fair.

So, we're looking forward to it and we're ready to have this conversation with Congress going forward.

BLITZER: Marie Harf, thanks very much for coming in.

HARF: Happy to be here.

BLITZER: Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you.

HARF: You too, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Up next, more breaking news. We're going live to South Korea and we're going to get reaction there to the new cyber-terror details we're learning. How vulnerable is the United States to these kinds of attacks? We are going to talk about it with our panel of experts, new information coming in right here into THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Sources telling CNN there's evidence hackers stole the computer credentials of a Sony official to gain access to the company's systems. And all of this is being watched very, very closely in South Korea.

CNN's Kyung Lah is joining us now live from Seoul, South Korea. So Kyung, what's been the reaction over there?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the reaction is, is this certainly makes sense. It fits with the suspicions of the South Korean government. That what hackers try to do is that they try to find an inroad, an inroad that they can then break into that company and propagate what they want.

And what North Korea wants, because you know, we see all these propaganda videos where they're over the top. They want to put out a message. So how do they do it with the foot soldiers that we're learning come from a shadow agency called Bureau 121?

They are highly trained. They are spread around the world, according to a defector and the South Korean government, with the sole mission of trying to disrupt American companies, western interests.

And again, Wolf, this comes down to visibility. Because as you and I both know, what North Korea has wanted out of the United States, out of the global community, is recognition. They want that visibility, and they're certainly getting it right now.

BLITZER: Long before, Kyung, the North Koreans did this damage to Sony Pictures in Hollywood, they did a lot of damage to South Korean banks and other institutions there. Just remind our viewers what happened.

LAH: What happened was -- this was last year. It was an area called Dark Seoul or something called Dark Seoul. And it's because part of Seoul went dark. The banks, some of the media companies were knocked off the air. People couldn't get money out of their ATMs. It was incredibly disruptive.

The thing that's important to note is, again, it was about visibility that. That the hackers aim to try to make ordinary life for South Koreans extremely difficult for a short period of time. They wanted to be seen. And so the theory is -- is that Bureau 121 has been doing these practice runs in South Korea. They're getting more bold, they're getting more sophisticated. The targets are bigger and bigger -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Kyung Lah in Seoul, South Korea for us, thank you.

Let's dig deeper right now. We're joined by our justice reporter, Evan Perez. He broke the news about hackers stealing the credentials of a top Sony computer administrator.

Also with us, our CNN national security analyst, Fran Townsend; our law enforcement analyst, the former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes; and our CNN political commentator and contributing editor to Atlantic media, Peter Beinart. And Eric Gardner is joining us, the senior editor of "The Hollywood Reporter."

Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

Evan, a lot of people are asking why the U.S. government can't do something to prevent these kinds of cyberattacks instead of relying on companies to defend themselves. What's going on over here?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that's exactly the problem with the United States, obviously. It's a free country. The Internet is open. It's not like a lot of foreign countries, especially North Korea, which tightly controls everything that goes on there.

And so the U.S. has a system in which you have a couple of agencies, the Homeland Security Department and the NSA, which are responsible for protecting government websites and military websites.

But companies are really on their own unless they are critical infrastructure companies, like people -- companies that control the power grid, for instance, Wolf.

And so a movie studio is not really something that the government can do much to protect. Companies really have to do their own spending on cyber security to make sure that they are protected.

And obviously in this case, the protections were not enough. Wolf, and if you remember, just a couple days ago you had the national security -- the head of the national security division, Justice Department, John Carlin. And he told you that 90 percent of companies probably would not have been able to defend against a hack like this.

BLITZER: Yes, he said 90 percent of American companies are vulnerable right now. Which picks up the question, Fran, what can they do about these private companies if they're so vulnerable? They could be devastated like Sony Pictures.

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That's right. But many companies, for example, in the financial services sector are spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars to protect their networks. They have outside firms test them. They patch vulnerability. They watch their networks constantly to hook for the sorts of things that Sony, frankly, missed.

So when 100 terabytes of information has gone out the back door, even through administrative privileges, you've got to ask yourself who and why?

You know, one of the interesting things talking about that South Korea recent attack that affected ATMs, banks and media companies, we have a very -- U.S. government has a very good relationship. No doubt investigators are looking at the forensics of that attack and trying to compare it. They know the South Korea attack was launched by North Korea. That would be a good indication, a good way to test, looking at this current attack, the forensics of it against Sony, against that South Korea attack, is one way you would map and try to determine whether or not North Korea was the actual hacker here.

BLITZER: And Tom, it's not just private companies that are very vulnerable right now. The U.S. government is vulnerable. You heard Marie Harf, the State Department deputy spokeswoman, say -- confirm what we knew, that State Department computers were hacked a few months ago.

FUENTES: Absolutely, Wolf. I mean, look what Snowden did. Taking highly classified material, tons of that material, took it right out the back door and probably out the front door and the side doors at the same time. And that was U.S. government proprietary information, and it wasn't protected enough.

So yes, the government's vulnerable by the companies. Everybody has some vulnerability to this type of attack.

BLITZER: What are the options, Peter, in terms of retaliating against North Korea, sending a message not only to North Korea but to others, other countries, other actors as the White House calls them, today not to do this? What are the options in terms of a response, once the U.S. publicly names and shames North Korea?

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This has been a problem in North Korea for many, many years. North Korea has been doing things that the United States finds objectionable for many, many years. Missile tests, for instance. Its whole nuclear program. And there's not that much you can do. I mean, North Korea is not very connected in the international economy. You -- it's got a huge military presence pointed right at South Korea. So you have to be very, very concerned about anything you would do militarily.

And, of course, you know, if the United States is condemning cyber warfare against Sony, the Unite State can't exactly turn around and launch a cyberattack at North Korea. So I think what I thought was interesting about what Josh Earnest, the White House spokesperson, said was -- the suggestion that this might be something that was not public may be some kind of private message to the North Korean regime. But this has been the problem for many, many years with North Korea. Their very poverty and isolation makes them a hard target to retaliate against. BLITZER: Good point. Eric, there are reports out there now that

Paramount Pictures have also now asked theaters who were planning on showing another film, "Team America" that came out about a decade or so ago, "Team America: World Police." It features a singing marionette version of the now-deceased Kim Jong-Il, not to do so, the puppet version, if you will. Kim Jong-Il, he's killed at the end of the movie. I want to show a little clip. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are going to all be treated to a fabulous show. But not the party is over, for I am the great Kim Jong-Il, and I am the greatest terrorist ever to have lived.




BLITZER: All right. So you saw him falling on that stake. That was, what, a decade or so ago. Nobody complained at the time. It was funny, it was a movie. It wasn't serious. But now all of a sudden, it looks like there's a lot of paranoia out there. Have the studios gone overboard, shall we say?

ERIC GARDNER, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER": Well, studio executives send to be very cautious. It might not seem that way, since they greenlighted the movie about Kim Jong-un in the first place.

But most of the time Hollywood studios, you know, release sequels and franchise movies. This is a bad precedent, and it's going to make studios even more cautious and fear risk. Some theater owners wanted to show support for America by re-releasing this film, and apparently Paramount, is you know, trying to be cautious and say maybe that's not such a hot idea at the moment.

BLITZER: They can prevent these movie theaters from showing that film, is that what you're saying?

GARDNER: Well, they're the licensor; they own the rights. And so absolutely. If they, you know, tell a studio -- if they tell their distributors "You can't do it," they can't do it.

BLITZER: It's really amazing, because it wasn't that long ago "Saturday Night Live" also made fun of Kim Jong-un after he was missing in action after the ankle surgery, apparently. He hadn't been seen in several weeks. Watch this little clip.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dear leader, it's been five weeks since you've been seen in public. Your people yearn to set eyes on their beloved Kim Jong-un. Please, some are wondering if you're still in charge. BOBBY MOYNIHAN, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Fools!

I am the one and only shining sun. I am your marshal. So why do I hear these poisonous rumors, that I am diabetic? Ha! That I have the gout? Ridiculous. That I have eaten too much imported cheese? Who dares question me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is just, Dear Leader, we are worried.

MOYNIHAN: Worried about me? Well, let me tell you something, General...


BLITZER: All right, NBC Universal. They weren't hacked as a result of that sketch comedy. Funny.

A lot of people have made fun of the regime in North Korea over the years. So what happened in this particular case from your analysis, Eric?

GARDNER: Yes. Well, you know, I think in many ways this was kind of unprecedented and no one could possibly imagine that, you know, a comedy film of all things would spark this reaction.

They certainly got some warnings, and they took some counsel from the government about this film. But you know, at the end of the day, they decided that this wasn't a particular risk.

Now -- now that it's happened, they're, you know, talking with their insurers and, you know, deciding that it's just not worth it, you know. They're going to pull it, they're not going to release it, even digitally. The only way to recoup the money at this point is through insurance. But this is a nightmare that's going to continue for them for, you know, months and years ahead.

BLITZER: This is a real disaster, you're absolutely right. Eric Garner, thanks very much. Evan Perez, Peter Beinart, Tom Fuentes, Fran Townsend, everybody, thank you.

Just ahead, a possible visit by President Obama to Cuba. White House officials are now speaking publicly about this previously unthinkable scenario. We're going to talk about that, the political fallout from the historic move to normalize relations between Washington and Havana.


BLITZER: It's a trip that would have been unimaginable 48 hours ago. But now, the White House is leaving the door open to a trip to Cuba by President Obama, who is moving to normalize relations with the Castro regime after more than half a century.

Let's go the White House. Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is standing by.

You had a chance to question officials about this. What did they say?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. They're not ruling out an Obama trip to Cuba. And as bizarre as it sounds, Wolf, a Raul Castro trip to the White House could also happen. You'll recall after the president's announcement that he was normalizing relations with Cuba. He said he was not opposed to making a trip to the island. Something a sitting U.S. president has not done since well before the Cuban revolution of the late 1950s.

So, I asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest about another potential scenario, could Cuban leader Raul Castro be invited to the White House? And Earnest did not say no, nothing that human rights issues and democratic concerns have not blocked from foreign leaders from places like China.

Here's what Earnest had to say.


ACOSTA: Would the president welcome Raul Castro to the White House?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That's a hypothetical, as well. I don't know that Mr. Castro has necessarily indicated the desire to travel to the United States and visit the White House. I guess what I would say is that there --

ACOSTA: Any more outrageous than the president going down to Cuba?

EARNEST: I mean, I suppose not. The president has had the leaders of both Burma and China to the United States. And for that reason, I wouldn't rule out a visit from President Castro.


ACOSTA: So, there you go. It looks like trips from high level U.S. officials will come first. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and the commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, who is a good friend of the president's, they say they are heading to Cuba in the coming months. And encounters between the Castros and U.S. presidents are not unheard of. As you know, Wolf, President Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands at the United Nations in the year 2000 and President Obama, of course, shook hands with Raul Castro down at Nelson Mandela's memorial service in South Africa last year, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we heard from Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman with the State Department, just saying a little while ago here in THE SITUATION ROOM that an assistant secretary of state will be going to Havana very soon to start working on the details of a full diplomatic relationship, the U.S. embassy there, a Cuban embassy here in Washington, ambassadors.

So, this train is leaving the station pretty quickly.

ACOSTA: Moving very quickly, that's exactly right. BLITZER: Yes, very quickly. All right. Jim Acosta, thank you.

Despite the changes, visiting Cuba remains a pretty difficult task for every day average Americans, at least for now. But that will change.

CNN's Rene Marsh is working this part of the story for us.

Rene, what are you finding out?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I spoke with many people in the industry and they say the demand is there. The industry is salivating at this idea. And, of course, I'm going to bet there are some people watching us now who took some time to daydream of sipping rum cocktails on a Cuban beach. But not so fast, there's still a hurdle.


MARSH (voice-over): Havana once dubbed the "Latin Las Vegas".


MARSH: Images of Carmen Moran singing with fruit in her hair, and movie stars dancing the night away at the Tropicana nightclub.

Exotic Caribbean flavor and distinct culture made Americans fall in love with Cuba before the revolution.

Caught in a time warp, it still looks strikingly similar to when TV's Lucy and Ricky visited in the 1950s, cars were new.

CHRISTOPHER P. BAKER, AUTHOR "MOON CUBA" GUIDEBOOK: Only 90 miles from U.S. shores. So, it's a no-brainer really. The demand is there.

MARSH: The president's new policy makes some travel, like educational and humanitarian trips easier. But it does not lift the embargo or allow for tourism.

BAKER: You got the forbidden fruit aspect. So much pent-up energy of millions and millions of Americans wishing to explore Cuba for themselves.

MARSH: Last year, less than 100,000 Americans visited, most on charters operated by airlines like American and JetBlue. But an industry group predicts 2 million more would go in the next two years if all restrictions were lifted. And the infrastructure may not be ready. The retro look attracting Americans conceals decade old water, electrical and transportation systems.

BAKER: It's going to take some time to -- for the airlines and cruise ships to put their plans in place. But they are already geared up for that day. They know what their itineraries would like, et cetera. You better believe they are salivating at the potential that Cuba holds. MARSH: But for that potential to be realized, Congress would

have to lift the embargo and there's resistance.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: It is just another concession to a tyranny.

But Wednesday' decision has filled the travel industry with the hope that Cuban tourism is around the corner.

BAKER: The most important thing yesterday is not just that we re-established diplomatic relations, but it changed the ballgame and the discussion in Congress.


MARSH: Well, I spoke to all of the major airlines and cruise lines and they all applaud the move by the president. What we saw yesterday is President Obama essentially going as far as he possibly could under the law to open up travel to Cuba. But if we want to see or if anyone wants to see anything more, it would take an act of Congress.

BLITZER: Yes, I know a lot of these American companies, hotel chains and others, as they said, salivating. They are waiting in line.

MARSH: Drooling.

BLITZER: They are ready to move in and get ready for business.

Thanks very much for that Rene Marsh.

Just ahead, political fallout from President Obama's historic changes between the U.S. and Cuba. What impact will they have in the next race for the White House?


BLITZER: We're following the strong reaction to President Obama's decision to normalize relations with Cuba after more than half a century, with praise and criticism of the move crossing party lines.

Let's get some more. Joining us, our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Gloria, this is something the president clearly has wanted to do since taking office. He spoke about it during the campaign as well.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He talked about it during the campaign and he's clearly doing it now because first of all, he's got Mr. Gross free and he said yesterday that that stood in the way of this. But I think it's part of a larger think for this president, which is that he's a lame duck who doesn't want to be a lame duck. He's got a lot of things on his to-do list and he sort of figured, you know what, I'm going it with or without the Congress. And so, if you look back, it's been less than two months since

the election and you look back at what he's done on immigration, on what he's done on climate change, what he just did on Cuba, he is suddenly this energized president who is not only setting his legacy, but he's also in a very interesting way, Wolf, setting the agenda for the 2016 campaign, because he's forcing Republican candidates to react.

BLITZER: And, you know, he's getting some surprising support, not just from Democrats but even some Republicans. Rand Paul today, who may be a Republican presidential candidate, he said the embargo over the past 50 years hasn't worked and he thinks it's probably a good idea to try something else.

BORGER: Yes. And, of course, Rand Paul stands in stark contrast with Marco Rubio who is very strongly opposed to this, Jeb Bush who was strongly opposed to this.

So, what the president is doing is he's setting up differences within the Republican Party and I think it's making it a little bit more difficult for them because what the president is banking on here, what the Democrats are banking on here, Wolf, is that younger Cuban Americans are for some kind of normalization of relations after 52 years, and that is the older Cuban Americans who are not.

Don't forget, President Obama won in the state of Florida with the Cuban-American community, got 49 percent of the vote there. So, he's making a demographic guess.

And I think Rand Paul is making that same calculation.

BLITZER: The president is going to end up in the year tomorrow with a news conference, an end of year news conference.

BORGER: He is.

BLITZER: I suspect he's going to get into a lot of these issues.

BORGER: I think he's going to get into a lot of these issues. So, I think we're going to hear an awful lot of questions on what the president's response is going to be on North Korea. We've seen a more muscular president over the last six to eight weeks, particularly as we saw this week in response to Cuba. He's been bold.

Question now is, what is his response going to be to North Korea? Is he going to call it cyber terrorism, Wolf? Is he going to say that this is effectively some kind of a declaration of war? Is he going to say the North Koreans are actually behind this? I think he's going to get a lot of questions on that. He's been very strong against ISIS, for example.

And what he's going to say about cyberterror is something I think we're all going to be listening to.

BLITZER: We'll, of course, have live coverage of the president's news conference tomorrow. BORGER: We will.

BLITZER: All right. Gloria, thanks very, very much.

All right. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet me @wolfblitzer. You can always tweet the show at CNNSitroom. Please be sure to join us again tomorrow right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can watch us live or DVR the show so you won't miss a moment.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.