WASHINGTON — When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford added a stop in Argentina to his trade mission to Brazil last June, the side trip should have raised eyebrows because he was undertaking a trade mission that the U.S. government was unwilling to make.

Although the Republican governor described the visit in a statement Thursday as "an entirely professional and appropriate business development trip," Argentina has been a financial pariah since it defaulted on its international debt after its decade-long effort to peg its currency to the U.S. dollar collapsed in late 2001. Argentina effectively told its creditors it was their fault that they'd lent to the nation and declined to pay or restructure much of its foreign debt.

The U.S. Commerce Department halted high-level trade missions to Argentina after Argentina reneged on its debts. A Commerce official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Sanford's visit contradicted federal policy.

While he was in Argentina, Sanford met a former Argentine vice president whose administration had a falling out with Bush administration and had drawn close to Venezuela, a Cuba ally and a U.S. foe.

Sanford, not the U.S. Commerce Department, contacted the U.S. Embassy for quick help in setting up meetings with Argentine officials.