The crew of Argentina's missing ARA San Juan submarine was tasked with spying on British ships, Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña told a Congressional hearing on Friday.
"The priority tactical objective of this patrol was the location, identification, photographic registry of refrigerated, logistics, oil ships that were smuggling with a fishing vessel," Peña said.
The San Juan was commissioned to identify and monitor a fleet of British ships and aircraft circling the Malvinas Islands, Peña told the court. The information was approved by the Navy Training and Enlistment Command and sent to the sub commander.
The fact the vessel had shown "flaws" before embarking on her final voyage, having sailed for 39 months on half-life repairs against the recommendation of the manufacturer, offers a sobering perspective on defense spending in Argentina.
The chief cabinet minister's admission contradicts testimony from Defense Minister Oscar Aguad, who firmly denied any order of espionage, though there was an order to rank, observe and scout out the area to perform regular check-ups, he said.
"I have the strong impression that Aguad's denial of the control activities of British ships and aircraft is due to the priority in governing the privileged relationship with the British for the discovery of the truth about the disappearance," opposition party deputy Guillermo Carmina wrote on Twitter.
Carmina said Peña's statement confirms claims the government is downplaying the case of the missing submarine, which disappeared along with her 44 crew on November 15, 200 kilometers off the coast of Chubut in the Argentine Sea.
Contact with the crew was lost and the rescue mission was aborted two weeks later in favor of attempts to locate and recover the wreckage.
Relatives of the crew are demanding that President Mauricio Macri re-initiate the search. The bereaved families paid tribute to the lost crew members at Mar del Plata naval base, 400 kilometers south of capital city Buenos Aires, Thursday.
"We are tired, sad and the anguish increases, we need you to continue searching and find it," said Malvinas Vallejos, a relative of one of the victims.
Last month, the government offered USS$5 million to anyone able to locate the wreckage of the missing submarine.