On January 2, 2015 President Barak Obama first imposed sanctions on North Korea for their alleged participation in the attacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment — that is, if they did it. This is advertised as the first salvo in what the President promises will be a “proportional” response.
These unilateral sanctions have a number of benefits to the United States government. First, they represent a public wrist slapping of the hermit Kingdom.
They are public, deliberate, and narrowly targeted against people who likely had nothing to do with the Sony attacks. Unless they did have something to do with it — but we may never know that. But this avoids the need to point fingers. No muss. No fuss.
The sanctions also have the benefit of not likely to resulting in further actions by the North Koreans against the United States. It’s not like North Korea has a lot that it can do (officially at least) against the United States. So we are safe. No muss. No fuss.
The sanctions also have the benefit of being unilateral. We don’t need to convince anyone else that we are right. No public meeting of the U.N. Security Council. No public trial. Just the President and sanctions. No muss. No fuss.
The unilateral sanctions by the President also have the benefit of not requiring Congressional approval. That’s not such a big deal, as just about everyone in Congress (House and Senate both) would likely agree to any sanctions (evidence or not) against the North Korea.
But the imposition of unilateral executive sanctions avoids a Wayne Morse problem — a dissenting voice. (Morse was the only Senator to vote against the Tonkin Gulf resolution.) So no debate. No dissent. No muss. No fuss.
The sanctions also avoid the need to present evidence either to the international community or to a trial. This means that the government can protect its classified sources and methods. It can protect the forensic information. The intercepts, and other tradecraft. And the government can protect the vulnerabilities that were exploited in the attack (although this may be exposed during the civil trial by Sony employees against the company.) No trial, no chance of acquittal. No muss, no fuss.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is all of the things above. We don’t have any way of vetting the information against North Korea. We can’t crowd source the investigation. We can’t know if North Korea deserves these sanctions. We can’t know if they deserve more. We can’t evaluate our own government’s actions. And that ability is essential for a democracy that relies on much more than “I have secret evidence, trust me…”