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Spy, whistleblower, hero, traitor ... but will Snowden be Glasgow Uni rector?

HIS actions have split public opinion across the world - and now one of Scotland's greatest universities is divided by Edward Snowden.

To many, the American whistleblower is a hero who stuck two fingers up to the authorities and revealed at great personal risk how America's National Security Agency was spying on the world.

To others he is a criminal and a traitor who risked the lives of countless individuals and threatened relations between the world's most powerful states.

This week students at Glasgow University will decide if Snowden, currently in exile in Russia, should be their official representative. He has been nominated for the university rectorship and has confirmed he will take the post if elected in the vote starting tomorrow.

Snowden's radical nomination should come as no surprise. Less than a decade ago the Israeli Mordechai Vanunu, who told the world of Tel Aviv's nuclear programme, was nominated.

Nelson Mandela's wife Winnie was elected in 1987, three years before her husband walked free from prison. In the 1970s, firebrand socialist Jimmy Reid held the post, and in the 1930s the pacifist Dick Sheppard was rector.

Snowden, a former NSA intelligence contractor, leaked extensive internet and phone surveillance revealing the global US spying machine. Facing prosecution in the US, he is unlikely to take a hands-on role representing students.

He agreed to stand after students approached him via his lawyer but is yet to release a campaign statement. If he wins it is hoped he will make an inaugural address - possibly by Skype .

Chris Cassells, a member of the "Elect Snowden as Rector" campaign at Glasgow University, said a Snowden victory would be a gesture against surveillance culture

"Having Edward Snowden as rector would give us a megaphone with which we can project our views to a global audience particularly on the issue of state surveillance and the very valid and welcome role of whistleblowers in a democracy," explained the PhD student, 27.

"I think he has done a great service to citizens across the world in exposing the corrupt and immoral practises of the NSA and our very own GCHQ.

"Studying at the university is dependent on the free exchange of information and freedom of speech, and I think Snowden's revelations hit to the heart of that."

Whoever wins at the polls will replace former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy MP, who has been in the role for the past six years.

Former journalist Yvonne Ridley, who worked with GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun, described Snowden as an "inspirational figure".

But to Crispin Black, he is a criminal who betrayed his country and put cou-ntless lives at risk.

Black has worked for the UK Joint Intelligence Committee, and was an army lieutenant-colonel, a military intelligence officer, a member of the Defence Intelligence Staff and a Cabinet Office intelligence analyst who briefed Number 10.

He said of Snowden: "He's broken the law and ­possibly betrayed techniques and possibly even the identity of agents to foreign powers - and people, until quite recently, were hanged for that.

"If the Americans ever get hold of him he is certainly going to jail for life."

Black warned students to imagine how an independent Scotland would react to having its secrets plastered across the front pages.

"If the identities of Scottish secret agents embedded abroad or perhaps even in England acting on behalf of their new country were revealed along with special techniques used by Scottish intelligence, I wonder how the students at Glasgow University would feel?"

But, he added: "I am softening a bit on Snowden as the days go by and more and more comes out.

"I thoroughly disapprove of what he has done but there is no question that the British and American establishments are very nearly out of control on this and somebody somewhere had to take a stand."

Ridley, now living in Scotland, was famously captured by the Taliban and later converted to Islam.

She said the students were right to nominate Snowden as he invoked the spirit of the university: "When he was approached about the rector position at the university I think he was really overwhelmed and very proud to be associated with a city that has a strong tradition of resisting oppression.

"There will be lots of student organisations around the UK now kicking themselves that they didn't think of this first, because he is such a high-profile character and because of what he has done. It's great for Glasgow and I really hope that the students get behind him."

Opinion within the university appears split on Snowden's nomination. Opposition has been posted on social networking sites and posters have been slashed.

Jess McGrellis, president of the university's Student Representatives Council, said she had been surprised by the backlash against him.

Snowden is one of four candidates for the rectorship alongside cyclist Graeme Obree, Scottish Episcopal Church minister Kelvin Holdsworth and actor Alan Bissett.

The rector's duties, including taking student concerns to the university management and chairing the university's ruling Court, are voluntary but all the other three candidates have been campaigning in person at the university and view themselves able to fight for student causes. For sheer brand recognition, though, they are a long way behind Snowden.

The new rector will be announced on Tuesday.

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