As Risen tells it, the CIA prepared the Russian for the operation in a series of meetings at a luxury hotel in San Francisco. At one point, they handed the blueprints to the Russian.
It appears Operation Merlin was an operation to give Iran incorrect nuclear blueprints. It appears to have come to light because a disgruntled former ops officer included it in his memoirs in retaliation for losing his discrimination suit. It is certain that Sterling was an Operations Officer in the CIA's Near East and South Asia division from 1993 to 2001, so he may well the be operations officer assigned to this case given the first person details.
This would obviously be far from the first time that the US's plotting has backfired in its face. Given the sensitivity of the data involved, however, I would have hoped that someone along the way would have showed some common sense. Giving a defecting nuclear scientist plans that may be within has capability to fix is a dumb idea, and continuing the operation even after he realizes this despite the ability to pull the plug is insane.
The reason that this has come up so recently is that charges have just been unsealed against Sterling. What is interesting are the subpoenas on Risen, since
Justice Department rules say prosecutors may seek subpoenas of journalists only if the information they are seeking is essential and cannot be obtained another way.
One possibility is that John Brennan is pushing the Justice Department to do this to punish Risen for breaking the story about the warrantless wiretapping program which Brennan headed through 2005. Brennan is currently serving as a quasi-Director of National Intelligence on the new National Security Council in order to avoid confirmations which he probably can't pass.
I guess the moral of the story is, if you're trying to keep your operation to give nuclear secrets to rogue states quiet, give your officers money to shut up and go away if they ask for it.
See also Ex-CIA officer accused of leak waives extradition: The indictment did not say specifically what information was leaked, but the dates and other details indicate the case centered on leaks to James Risen, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. His 2006 book "State of War" revealed details about the CIA's covert spy war with Iran.