Selling arms to Iran to provide covert funding for Nicaragua's Contra guerillas in the 1980s landed the Ronald Reagan presidency in hot water and made a national anti-hero of Oliver North. Arming Teheran is one thing, but the thought that the United States would also flood its own black ghettos with drugs to fight Managua's Marxists is almost beyond belief. Almost. In a plot Tom Clancy might have written under the influence of amphetamines, the CIA stands accused of helping supply millions of dollars worth of crack cocaine to street gangs in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1980s - thereby helping spark the nationwide crack explosion that led to murder, mayhem and misery. At a time when the CIA is supposed to be at the forefront of international efforts to stop the influx of South America's drugs, the suggestion that it secretly became one of the country's biggest suppliers to get cash for the Contras has lawmakers and black leaders up in arms. CIA chief John Deutch recently promised to investigate the allegations, which came to light last month in the San Jose Mercury News. However, some may feel that getting the nation's spooks to investigate themselves is like asking Burma's generals to monitor the Bosnian elections. According to FBI and other government documents demanded by the newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act, evidence is strong that the CIA recruited the services in 1981 of Nicaraguan cocaine dealers, Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, who were also California-based leaders of the FDN, a freedom group which became part of the Contras. Court cases in both Nicaragua and the US have seen witnesses refer to the collusion of the two men in supplying drugs to American gangs with the CIA's help. Blandon, an unsavoury character who later turned informant for US prosecutors, also testified in a recent trial that he supplied huge amounts of cocaine to feared dealer 'Freeway' Rick Ross, who turned it into crack for the infamous Crips and Bloods street gangs of South Central LA. Questions have also been asked about why, despite massive evidence of the narcotics activities, neither man was ever prosecuted. One massive raid in 1986 which led to the temporary arrest of Blandon uncovered no leads - suggesting to local law enforcers that he had been tipped off in advance. When the Senate got a sniff of the CIA link in 1988 and tried to investigate, they were abruptly blocked. 'The Justice Department flipped out to prevent us from getting access to people, records - finding anything out about it,' said Jack Blum, a Senate aide. 'It was one of the most frustrating exercises that I can ever recall.' Even though Mr Deutch has responded - about a decade too late - to calls for an internal probe, that is not enough for black members of Congress, who have accused the CIA of a racist targeting of the black community for its sinister ends - recalling the equally horrific incident in Tuskegee, Tennessee, after the war, when 400 black men with syphilis were not correctly treated because researchers wanted to study the effects of the disease. Two prominent black activists were arrested last week outside the CIA's headquarters as they tried to accost Mr Deutch over the claims. It can only be a matter of time before the agency drops a bunch of Uzi-toting Crips over Baghdad to put an end to Saddam Hussein once and for all. Visitors to the US will know there is nothing worse than spotting a panhandler within begging distance of an ATM cash machine. Beggars know the psychological pressure placed on the conscience of the middle-class person who walks away from the machine, tucking a fresh wad of bills into his pocket while replacing the bank card in his wallet next to the tidy stack of other plastic friends. While of course no-one outside the Forbes 500 is likely to take one of the freshly-spouted US$20 bills (about HK$155) and place it into the outstretched hand of a bum, the flush feeling that follows an ATM withdrawal pricks the conscience enough to ensure the donation of at least a grubby quarter. Then there is the feeling of physical threat - especially if the machine is on a dark, isolated street and the beggar in question looks disinclined to ask politely. Nowhere is this scenario more likely than New York, which is why the city council voted last week to make beggars behave more sociably. After a heated debate, the council approved a new law which would ban begging within three metres of a cash machine, make illegal any 'aggressive' panhandling that implies a physical threat, and allow cops to arrest the despised 'squeegee' men who prey on cars stuck in traffic by cleaning a driver's windscreen without permission and then demand payment. The move follows those of other cities afflicted by a begging epidemic, such as San Francisco. But racial issues have naturally confused what should be viewed as a simple law and order question. Several black councillors objected to the law, claiming it would allow those in authority to harass ethnic minorities. Oh for the good old days, when beggars were clean, polite and really did say: 'Buddy, can you spare a dime?'