"If they are lucky, the thief may not realize the value of the stolen file, and it won't be used by criminals to drain veterans' bank accounts or borrow money in their names."That is probably the first thing that went through my mind. A laptop is stolen by someone who only wants the laptop, but before it's been fenced or otherwise disposed of they discover it contains the names and social security numbers of millions of US Veterans. Which is the better approach; announcing to the thief he possesses million of names and social security numbers worth a lot more than the laptop, or not announcing it for a couple weeks and informing the veterans directly? Obviously, the theft would eventually be publicized, but might the veterans' privacy been better protected if the laptop's contents had been kept secret for as long as possible? In this and other damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't dilemmas the better choice may make itself obvious if we're willing to risk bad publicity later for doing the right thing sooner.
My home was broken-in to once and in an upstairs office there were two computer devices. One was a $200 dumb-terminal and the other was a $2000 computer. It isn't without an appreciation for irony that I tell you they took the dumb terminal.
It matters little how much money they got for it, but it matters in this case because what's inside the laptop is more valuable to some than the laptop itself. Now that everyone knows what's inside the authorities won't be the only ones looking for it--and that is not a good thing.