The Top Secret America database was put together by compiling hundreds of thousands of public records of government organizations and private-sector companies.
From these records, The Washington Post identified 45 government organizations (for example, the FBI) engaged in top-secret work and determined that those 45 organizations could be broken down into 1,271 sub-units (for example, the Terrorist Screening Center of the FBI). One of the 45 organizations is represented as “unknown”; this category was created as a catchall for companies doing work for a government organization that could not be determined.
At the private-sector level, The Post identified 1,931 companies engaged in top-secret work for the government. Private-sector companies were grouped together and listed by a parent company's name (for example, General Dynamics), even though one company might contain multiple sub-units (for example, General Dynamics Information Technology).
In a case where a large corporation (for example, Boeing) has a distinctly named sub-unit engaged in top-secret work (for example, Boeing's Digital Receiver Technology) the name of the sub-unit was used. In the case of large corporations not primarily in the defense industry (for example, AT&T) that have similarly named sub-units that focus on top-secret work (for example, AT&T Government Solutions), the name of the parent company is used and the name of the sub-unit is noted. For every company listed, revenue and employee data and the date of establishment were drawn from public filings, Dun & Bradstreet data and original reporting.
More than 20 journalists worked on the investigation, including investigative reporters, cartography experts, database reporters, video journalists, researchers, interactive graphic designers, digital designers, graphic designers, and graphics editors at The Washington Post. They include:
Stephanie Clark, Ben de la Cruz, Kat Downs, Anne Ferguson-Rohrer, Justin Ferrell, David Finkel, Jennifer Jenkins, Todd Lindeman, Laris Karklis, Lauren Keane, Greg Manifold, Jennifer Morehead, Bonnie Jo Mount, Larry Nista, Ryan O’Neil, Sarah Sampsel, Whitney Shefte, Laura Stanton, Julie Tate, Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso, Michael Williamson, Karen Yourish, Amanda Zamora
One researcher was funded in part by the Center on Law and Security at New York University Law School.