In a carefully worded statement, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said she agreed with President Bush's decision to file a Supreme Court brief opposing the Michigan plan, which awards bonus points to minorities.
But she also drew a distinction between her views on affirmative action and those of the president.
While he came out forcefully against the use of racial preferences in college admissions, Rice said "it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body."
She said, however, that "race neutral means are preferable."
Rice, the first African-American to hold her influential post, said she discussed the racial preference issue – which falls outside her usual national security portfolio – with the president before he announced his decision in the Michigan case.
Other administration officials have stressed the filing was carefully worded to cover just the Michigan plan, not the high court's landmark Bakke decision. That 1978 ruling outlawed strict quotas, but said admissions officers could take race into account.
Rice's public statement followed a report in the Washington Post that she had played a key role in convincing the president to condemn the Michigan admissions policy.
The Post, citing administration sources, said Rice drew on her experience as Stanford University's provost to help convince Mr. Bush that giving preferences to minorities was not an effective way of improving diversity on college campuses.
Rice told the president that she worked at Stanford to raise the number of black faculty members, but that she was "absolutely opposed to quotas," a senior administration official said.