'We had no idea' about faulty switch: Ex-car czar

Auto industry's road to recovery

Five years after the Obama administration forced the country's largest automaker into a government-backed bankruptcy, the man who led the charge said the auto task force had no inkling of the ignition switch defect that caused millions of General Motors vehicles to be recalled.

"We had no idea," said Steve Rattner, who served as the lead adviser on the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry. "As far as I know, none of the management people we were dealing with knew about it, so we didn't know about it, nor could we have."

Rattner's comments on CNBC's "Squawk Box" come as critics of GM are questioning how many of the automaker's executives knew about the issues involving faulty ignition switches.

Read MoreGM recalls 218,000 Aveo cars

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration slapped a maximum penalty of $35 million on General Motors for not reporting the defect "in a timely manner."

GM Crossover SUV vehicles roll off the assembly line at the General Motors Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant in Lansing, Michigan.
Getty Images

In doing so, David Friedman, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said it's clear some GM engineers and executives, but not CEO Mary Barra, had knowledge of problems with the ignition switch that lead to 13 deaths and the recall of almost 2.6 million vehicles.

Also Wednesday, General Motors recalled another 218,000 vehicles, this time for a potential fire hazard on its 2004 to 2008 Aveo models. So far this year, GM has recalled almost 11.8 million vehicles in the U.S.

Read MoreAuto recalls on track to hit record

Critics have said that Rattner and the auto task force should have done more due diligence on the inner workings of General Motors before signing off on a bankruptcy. If they had, critics argue, perhaps the team would have uncovered the ignition switch issue.

But Rattner said hindsight is 20/20.

"If we had more time ... in the private sector we would have done some more due diligence," Rattner said. "There are plenty of examples in private equity where private equity guys have made investments and then found out later, stuff they wish they'd have known before."

Read MoreIgnition switches, parking fails: Recalled cars

As for Barra's job handling the crisis, Rattner gave her high marks.

"I think she's handling it pretty well. I think we'd all like to know more [quickly] about what actually happened and who knew what. I think the process of figuring out what to do about it is very complicated," he said.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau, with contributions from Reuters.

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