The partnership between the CIA and Blackwater was revealed today as even closer, with The New York Times reporting that the private security firm has been used in conjunction with the predator drone program seeking to kill Al Qaeda leaders. The revelation promises to deepen debate on how and why Blackwater managed to become so entrenched in some of America's most crucial operations.

What exactly is the nature of the relationship between the CIA and Blackwater, and what does it mean for American national security? We've compiled the three best analyses: Scott Horton, a Columbia law professor and Harper's writer on the intersection of national security and the law; The Nation's Jeremy Scahill, whose book on Blackwater has helped define public perception of the firm; and, writing for Time, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer whose books were the basis of the film Syriana.

  • Plausible Deniability  That's the motivation Horton ascribed to the CIA bringing in Blackwater. "The last eight years have made clear that congressional oversight committees have a hard time keeping track of contractors, especially contractors engaged in sensitive intelligence projects," he wrote, citing the role of contractors in other projects that "skirt the law," such as torture.

    Horton criticized the legal reasoned used by "the Bush Administration’s lawyer-cowboys," arguing that the law of war allows "targeted killings" to be performed by the military but not the CIA -- and certainly not by a private security company hired by the CIA. "Contractors are not privileged combatants under the laws of war," he wrote. "The bottom line is that private security companies have no business becoming involved in a project like the CIA targeted killings program."
  • Dollars and Cents  Baer argued the Blackwater-CIA parternship was about CIA heads funneling government money to their former colleagues who have come to run Blackwater. "Blackwater's assassination work was more about bilking the U.S. taxpayer than it was killing Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaeda leaders," he wrote. "More than a few senior CIA officers retired from the CIA and went to work at Blackwater."

    Baer noted that the CIA would have no plausible reason for outsourcing the highly sensitive work. "Blackwater stood no better chance of placing operatives in Pakistan's tribal areas, where the al-Qaeda leadership was hiding in 2004, than the CIA or the U.S. military did.," he wrote. So why give Blackwater lucrative contracts? "As soon as CIA money lands in Blackwater's account, it is beyond accounting, as good as gone."
  • Bush and Blackwater  Scahill positioned Blackwater's role as giving the Bush administration greater freedom to get around legal restrictions, particularly its obligation to brief Congress on clandestine operations. Scahill cited the phrase "operational flexibility," once used by Cofer Black, a former CIA officer who left for Blackwater. Scahill noted "an investigation into whether Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to conceal an assassination program from Congress," further connecting the Bush White House to Blackwater's hiring.

    In exploring that connection, Scahill extensively quoted Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic Congresswoman who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. "What we know now, if this is true, is that Blackwater was part of the highest level, the innermost circle strategizing and exercising strategy within the Bush administration," Schalowsky told him. "This shows that there was absolutely no space whatsoever between the Bush administration and Blackwater."