(Confirms media report, adds quote, background)
WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked the department's inspector general on Friday to review whether the government's auto safety agency had properly investigated reports of ignition problems in recalled General Motors cars that have been linked to 12 deaths.
Foxx said he ordered the investigation "out of an abundance of caution."
Several safety watchdogs have said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should have ordered GM to recall the cars as early as 2007. The automaker has said it first learned of the defect in 2001, before the cars went into production.
"At the present time, we are not aware of any information to suggest that NHTSA failed to properly carry out its safety mission based on the data available to it and the processes it followed," Foxx said.
Last month, GM said it was recalling 1.6 million 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2003-2007 Saturn Ions and other models due to a faulty ignition switch that could cause the engine to turn off while driving, making the car harder to steer and brake and disabling airbags.
GM has said the defect has been linked to 12 deaths and 31 accidents.
NHTSA is part of the Department of Transportation, and DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovell will conduct the investigation. Foxx said in a memo to Scovell that he has also asked NHTSA and DOT's Office of General Counsel to conduct a joint review.
The safety agency itself is investigating GM's handling of the recall, and Congress is scheduled to hold hearings on the matter next month. The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan has opened a criminal probe of GM. (Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)