The Clinton administration, saying it was stepping up the war on drug-related money laundering, announced yesterday that it will require thousands of check-cashing, money-remitting and currency-exchange businesses to register with the federal government.

Treasury Department officials said the new regulations--aimed at businesses ranging from giant money remitters such as Western Union to small, storefront check-cashing firms--are designed to give law enforcement officials a better look at an industry that they say has in some cases provided drug dealers a handy way to launder their cash.

Money laundering generally involves taking large amounts of cash derived from illegal operations such as drug dealing or gambling and turning it into safe and legal assets--for example, by wiring it out of the country or depositing it in a bank account.

The government already targets such operations by forcing the disclosure of large cash transactions. And just like banks, the "money services businesses" Treasury is targeting are already required to report all cash transactions of more than $10,000 and keep records of transactions of $3,000 or more. But compared with banks, which are heavily regulated and monitored, the services businesses are relatively unwatched, Treasury officials said.

The new regulations will "give us for the first time a truly comprehensive picture of this industry--who owns them and what services they provide," said James F. Sloan, director of Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Failure to register with the government will be a crime punishable by a fine of $5,000 per day and up to five years in prison.

Although Sloan emphasized that "the great majority" of the money-services businesses have nothing to do with money laundering, law enforcement officials have found some to be a hotbed of drug-related cash transfers.

Elisabeth A. Bresee, Treasury assistant secretary for enforcement, said a 1996 operation in New York found that a handful of money remitters were sending $800 million a year to Colombia--an amount officials said would have required every Colombian household in the area to send home $30,000 a year.

Treasury has been at work on the new regulations since Congress mandated the registry in 1994. Industry representatives gave Treasury high marks yesterday for trying to craft rules that will not be burdensome to business. "They really listened and tried to learn what this business is all about," said Peter Zieverts, vice president of corporate communications for Western Union.

Some observers were split over whether the new rules will do much to stave off money laundering. Ziverts said they would. "They've developed a meaningful set of rules that will provide good information," he said. "What they need to crack down on money laundering is information."

But another industry spokesman who declined to be named said the rules would add little to information officials already have. He noted that 45 states already regulate money-services businesses, and that the Internal Revenue Service watches them closely for signs of illegal activity.

Under the new rules, the businesses would have more than two years to register--the deadline is Dec. 31, 2001.

And while there are an estimated 160,000 locations conducting such business, only the 5,000 to 8,000 major operators would have to register. MoneyGram Payment Systems Inc., for example, which says it has more than 26,000 branch offices, would have to maintain a list of those "agents," but in most cases, the agents themselves would not have to register independently.

Registered businesses would have to keep track of their agents' dollar volume and maintain records for any agent who did more than $100,000 worth of business in a single month. But they would not have to report that information to the government unless law enforcement officials asked them for it.

Treasury officials said yesterday they are still working on a rule that will require the businesses to report "suspicious activity," such as unusually frequent cash transactions or multiple cash transactions just below the $10,000 reporting threshold.