WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tackles Google, dispels health rumours

Julian Assange speaks to CBC's Jian Ghomeshi about his health, vilification and, as he sees it, Google's close relationship with the U.S. government
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past two years fearing extradition. (Associated Press)

In an exclusive Canadian broadcast interview with CBC Radio's Q with Jian Ghomeshi, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accuses Google of being "in bed" with the U.S. government for allegedly spying on him and because of the way it collects personal data.

He also talks about how it feels to be vilified, his health and the personal toll of being holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past two years fearing extradition and, possibly, prison.

"I'm pretty hard to kill. And I come from a very long-lived family line," said Assange, who had been rumoured to be in deteriorating health.

The Australian internet publisher, who released a trove of U.S. diplomatic and military documents in 2010, fled to the embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden where he was to face questioning over allegations of sexual assault and rape, allegations that he denies.

He fears, he has said, that if he were to be extradited to Sweden he would then be handed over to the U.S. where he would be tried for one of the largest leaks of government information in U.S. history, leaks that some critics have said put national security and people's lives at risk.

"In some ways, the conflict that has come about as a result is not altogether unwelcome, but it's not something that my children, for example, signed up for,"Assange said. "So that's really the greatest irritation."

Assange, speaking from the embassy via phone, said the attacks on his character are just part of the nature of things of being a publisher and "infuriating big powers."

"We've had many of those over eight years. I'm used to them to a degree. The size of the counterattacks that started in late 2010, they pushed the organization right to the very edge but we have lived through it."

'Perverse nature' of fame

Asked what people get wrong about him, Assange replied "almost everything."

"That's the perverse nature of not simply celebrity but the perverse nature of being famous and having a superpower as an opponent.

"Anyone who has that situation has the same result."

A police officer stands guard outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fled to in 2012. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

Assange said that, according to his own counter-intelligence sources, he estimates there is around $12 million worth of surveillance on him and the Ecuadorian embassy, and that approximately 16 people monitor the embassy 24 hours day.

"That's a difficult circumstance for someone that's running a publishing organization involved in a dozen different legal court cases around the world, most of them involving the United States, to preserve our ability to act.

"On the other hand, there can be no raids in the middle of the night, no subpoenas, because it's an embassy."

Assange told Ghomeshi that, in 2010, he made the strategic decision that he would have to publish those government documents on principle. (Former U.S. army private Bradley Manning, now known as Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for handing over the bulk of the material to WikiLeaks.)

He said he knew his organization would have a "very hard fight" on its hands that it wouldn't necessarily win, but we had a good chance for five or seven years.

"And I think that is bearing out. There is an increasing realization, even in this country, that what has happened is quite unjust."

The Google fight

Assange also spoke about his new book When Google met WikiLeaks, which recounts a secret meeting Assange had with Google chairman Eric Schmidt in 2011 while Assange was under house arrest in London.

Assange said Schmidt used his girlfriend at the time to help collect information about the WikiLeaks founder for the U.S. State Department.

"What we do know is that the information collected as a result of the interview, very quickly, some parts of it, went to the U.S. State Department, to the top of the U.S. State department."

Assange said the U.S. government  used Schmidt's then girlfriend "as the secret back channel for that communication.

"She doesn't formally work for the U.S. State Department, she has no formal role in being the back channel for the U.S. State Department, but of course, within the State Department, they had known about this visit.

"This got me very interested in how was it that the chairman of Google was literally in bed in a way with the U.S. State Department."

Assange said Google, which he said is "striving to be the geopolitical visionary of the United States" has been involved in selling search services to the National Security Agency since 2002.

Assange says that while he was under house arrest in 2011, he had a secret meeting with Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. (Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press)

For him, this means that Google "is formally part of the defence industrial base."

"This close connection between Google's business activities, its business model, which it can't get away from, and the U.S. government, created an opportunity for the NSA to stick its fangs into everything that Google was collecting."

When asked for comment, a Google spokesperson said "we're not inclined to respond."

But last week, Schmidt himself told an ABC business program that "the fact of the matter is Julian is very paranoid about things and it's true that the NSA did things that they shouldn't have done.

"But Google has done none of those things. Google never collaborated with NSA and in fact, we've fought very hard against what they did and since what the NSA did, which we do not like. We have taken all of our data, all of our exchanges, and we fully encrypted them so no one can get them, especially the government."

With files from Reuters