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Former Clinton White House aides are accepting blame for improperly ga-ther-ing FBI background files, while insisting it was an innocent mistake.

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum shouldered the blame for the collection of FBI files on hundreds of Bush and Reagan administration employees. And the former personnel security chief, Craig Livingstone, resigned - saying he, too, accepted responsibility.But both insisted they were unaware that a Livingstone associate brought into the White House on temporary assignment from the Pentagon was gathering the material in late 1993 and early 1994.

The lapse was not caused by any political motive but by bureaucratic bungling and their failure to supervise an Army civilian employee, Anthony Marceca, Nuss-baum and Living-stone told the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

"In the Clinton White House I knew, there was no enemies' list," Nussbaum said.

As he announced he was quitting, Livingstone maintained that Marceca, an old political associate, had relied on an outdated Secret Service list to gather the FBI files to determine who was eligible for White House passes.

"I did not recognize the problem, and for that, I am truly sorry," Livingstone said.

Marceca said he simply processed names from a computer printout stored in the office vault at the time he took his job, not realizing the list was out of date.

But memos by Marceca suggest he kept Livingstone well informed that their office was gathering FBI files on people who were no longer in government.

One memo - which Marceca wrote in Livingstone's name - contained a list of names sent to the federal General Services Administration asking whether any of the people "have left the White House."

Marceca wrote a similar memo to the National Security Council in Livingstone's name, covering a seven-page list of national security aides. The memos, recently provided to House investigators, were titled "Background Investigations and Re-Investigations."

It was from the list Marceca used - since destroyed - that he got the FBI files. Among them: former Bush administration Secretary of State James Baker III, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and CIA Director Robert Gates.

In all, the White House improperly received more than 700 FBI files.

While Republicans directing the committee tried to demonstrate that the White House actions were politically motivated, minority Democrats took pains to elicit testimony from the aides that higher-ups in the White House were not aware of the file-gathering.

"You're starting to persuade me that this is a gigantic goof," Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., told the witnesses during one such exchange.

Said Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, "This is a hearing to smear President Clinton."

The oversight committee's chairman, Rep. William Clinger, R-Pa., said the gathering of the FBI files was a "massive invasion of privacy. I think Mr. Livingstone was correct to resign." However, added Clinger, Livingstone "should not be made a scapegoat."

Livingstone's resignation came a week after he was placed on paid leave over the files incident. The White House said Wednesday it had not asked for the resignation.