"We crushed them like a bug," Assange said, finger wagging. The belligerence, at odds with his smooth veneer, drew a murmur from the startled listeners.
Assange is an enigma, a mirror of what people want to see. A cyber-villain or a force for open society. Quirky and complex, he cultivates mystery.
But a look at the thinkers who influenced him, ranging from a German anarchist to American President Theodore Roosevelt, reveals a man incensed by the perceived injustices of big power and fearful of persecution.
The gallery of figures who have influenced Assange, combined with his own writings, provide the intellectual playbook for a 39-year-old Australian with no fixed address who has jolted the world's most powerful country by unveiling the secrets of U.S. war logs and diplomatic cables.
He was arrested last week in a Swedish sex crimes case, and the United States asserts that he has undermined security and may have endangered people cited in the documents. Assange has said the accusations are unfounded, and that he is the victim of a politically motivated campaign to discredit him and his organization.
His self-styled image as a lone, besieged challenger to the traditional order, one that is gaining currency in some circles, may owe much to his literary roots. Computers are his life, but so are books. George Orwell, who described the corruption of power and the lies that fuel a totalitarian vision, had a big impact. So did Kurt Vonnegut, an American author known for satire and non-conformism, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate who wrote about the horror of Soviet labor camps.
"If there is a book whose feeling captures me it is First Circle by Solzhenitsyn," Assange wrote in 2006. "How close the parallels to my own adventures! ... Such prosecution in youth is a defining peak experience. To know the state for what it really is! To see through that veneer the educated swear to disbelieve in but still slavishly follow with their hearts!"
As a teenager in Australia, Assange hacked into computers. He was arrested in 1991, but got off with a fine in a case that was resolved several years later. His story is believed to be documented in "Underground," a 1997 book about hackers that Assange helped to write.
Numerous media reports have identified Mendax, a hacker in the book, as Assange. In a preview of Assange's frequent travel and concern about surveillance in the months leading to his arrest last week, "Underground" describes how Mendax became increasingly fearful:
"He dreamed of footsteps crunching on the driveway gravel, of shadows in the pre-dawn darkness, of a gun-toting police squad bursting through his backdoor at 5 a.m. He dreamed of waking from a deep sleep to find several police officers standing over his bed. The dreams were very disturbing. They accentuated his growing paranoia that the police were watching him, following him."
Assange provided author Suelette Dreyfus with analysis and technical expertise to write "Underground," though she declined to discuss the identities of people in the book. She recalled that Assange was "a big fan" of Orwell's "Animal Farm," as well as Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," which is about a man imprisoned and tried for treason during the Soviet purges in the 1930s.
"It is a classic work and perhaps hit a particular chord with him as it set the scene in a fictional manner for how societies without transparency and open government can go sour," Dreyfus wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
She said that, influenced by his mother, Assange came to love the Greek classics, including Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, and that he read them to his own son, Daniel, who now works in software development.
Assange "found the writing very powerful. He knew that the literature of the ancient world provided a moral lens through which to view society, and a way to explore these issues with children while also entertaining them," Dreyfus said.
"Underground" details the psychology of the hackers, describing their rivalry and nocturnal hours, the egos and compulsiveness, the personal problems of some, and the intoxicating sense of power once they had gained mastery of a network and roamed its inner structure at will. One Australian hacker group that appears in the book calls itself "The International Subversives" - Assange is believed to have been a member.
"For Julian, the emergence of the Internet in the early 90s in Australia appeared to be the opening up of the lolly shop! He was a teenager and part of a collection of kids who were fascinated by the network and fascinated by the complete lack of security on computers at the time," Geoff Huston, a computer network expert in Australia who gave evidence at Assange's prosecution in Australia in the 1990s, said in an email.
Beyond technology, Assange was developing a keen political awareness at a time of anti-nuclear activism, as well as a sense of underdog individualism reflected in his writing.
"I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly. They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully," he wrote in a column published last week in a newspaper, The Australian.
Assange is jailed in Britain on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion in Sweden, and the case could lead to his extradition. He was arrested after Interpol put him on its most-wanted list. His supporters allege he is a victim of a dirty tricks campaign; Swedish authorities reject the idea that the case is politically motivated.
Years ago, Assange prefaced entries on a now-defunct blog with a quotation from German Gustav Landauer, an anarchist thinker who was killed by troops in Munich in 1919. Assange alleged some giant corporations amount to virtual nation states, free of accountability.
Yet he counts an American president among his influences, citing a comment by Roosevelt about destroying "invisible government," the corrupt forces in business and politics. He also gave early, unvarnished insight into his thinking on information leaks.
"The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie," Assange wrote. "Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance."
Some former colleagues have commented on an autocratic, secretive streak in Assange, who extolled activism and self-sacrifice in a lofty blog post in 2007, possibly inspired by his literary icons.
"Try as I may I cannot escape the sound of suffering," Assange wrote. "Perhaps as an old man I will take great comfort in pottering around in a lab and gently talking to students in the summer evening and will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now; men in their prime, if they have convictions are tasked to act on them."