Faced with mounting international pressure over the Falkland Islands territorial dispute, the British government enlisted its spy service, including a highly secretive unit known for using “dirty tricks,” to covertly launch offensive cyberoperations to prevent Argentina from taking the islands.
A shadowy unit of the British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had been preparing a bold, covert plan called “Operation QUITO” since at least 2009. Documents provided to The Intercept by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, published in partnership with Argentine news site Todo Notícias, refer to the mission as a “long-running, large scale, pioneering effects operation.”
At the heart of this operation was the Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group, known by the acronym JTRIG, a secretive unit that has been involved in spreading misinformation.
The British government, which has continuously administered the Falkland Islands — also known as the Malvinas — since 1833, has rejected Argentine and international calls to open negotiations on territorial sovereignty. Worried that Argentina, emboldened by international opinion, may attempt to retake the islands diplomatically or militarily, JTRIG and other GCHQ divisions were tasked “to support FCO’s [Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s] goals relating to Argentina and the Falkland Islands.” A subsequent document suggests the main FCO goal was to “[prevent] Argentina from taking over the Falkland Islands” and that new offensive cyberoperations were underway in 2011 to further that end.
Tensions between the two nations, which fought a war over the small archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean in 1982, reached a boil in 2010 with the British discovery of large, offshore oil and gas reserves potentially worth billions of dollars.
The British government frames the issue as one of residents’ self-determination. Prime Minister David Cameron maintains that the islands will remain British as long as that was the will of their inhabitants, “full stop, end of story.”
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, known for her provocative, left-leaning foreign policy since taking office in 2007, rallied regional and international leaders to pass resolutions in international bodies supportive of Argentina’s claim to the islands and stand against what she called the U.K.’s “downright colonialism.”
Even the United States, Britain’s closest ally, declined to support the U.K. position, instead offering to mediate a resolution between the two sides in 2010. Prime Minister Cameron rejected the proposal, calling it “disappointing.”
GCHQ’s efforts on Argentina and the Falklands between 2008 and 2011, the time period the documents cover, were broad and not limited solely to JTRIG. Surveillance of Argentine “military and Leadership” communications on various platforms was a “high priority” task. Despite the Obama administration’s unwillingness to publicly back their ally, NSA assistance was ongoing as of 2010. According to an NSA “Extended Enterprise Report” dated June 2008, based on NSA officials’ meetings with GCHQ representatives, Argentina was “GCHQ’s primary interest in the region.”